The horsemeat scandal, alone amongst food scares, is not about health. Why the hell is it so huge?

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Over the weekend I caught up with an American cousin. His questions started out friendly enough, but when I confessed that I was “still a journalist”, they took a turn for the patronising. “I’ve been in England two weeks now and every time I switch on the news it’s just horse meat, horse meat, horse meat,” he said. “Does nothing happen in this country?”

Nothing does, but even I can see that our media’s horsemeat content is nigh on indigestible at the moment. The industry reaction has been huge too. Tesco has dropped €360m in market value. European leaders have called emergency meetings in Brussels. Now, large-scale (in other words, extremely expensive) DNA testing is being talked about.

What makes the scale of this food scare particularly odd is that it isn’t even a health scare. All our previous food scares have been: BSE, salmonella, listeria. This one is mostly about surprise. Looks like beef, tastes like beef, sold as beef, actually horse(!) (Let’s ignore the murmurings about bute, by the way, the horse analgesic that “may” have entered the food chain. Even if treated horses had ended up in some burgers the estimated dose would be too low to have any effects, and as the drug is used therapeutically in human beings anyway, the effects would be fairly innocuous.)

No: the scale of the reaction here, I’d argue, is all about BSE – another food scandal involving dangerous cost-cutting, regulatory failures and beef - but that time with fatal consequences. An important difference, you might think - yet almost every comment piece on the recent scandal has linked the two. Google “BSE horsemeat”, for example, and you get 182,000 results. BSE is Horsegate’s nearest relation and the scale of that crisis is dictating this one.

Our mistake here is an example of “anchoring”, taking an early piece of information and leaning on it too heavily as a reference point. We’re all vulnerable to the error. Here's how it works: ask someone the following two questions:

1)Was Gandhi more or less than 144 years old when he died?

2)How old was Gandhi when he died?

..and now ask someone else these questions:

1)Was Gandhi more or less than nine years old when he died?

2)How old was Gandhi when he died?

Absurd as the two openers are, they will still affect the answers you get. In group testing, the first questions had Gandhi die at an average age of 50 and the second at an average age of 67.

The trick is simple and effective but can also be dangerous, and when reacting to a developing crisis we are particularly susceptible, as with limited information available we cling all the harder to what we have.

In July 2011, when a bomb went off in Oslo, the world’s media instantly assumed that it was a work of jihadist terror, before the real identity of the perpetrator – the far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik –was revealed. Nearly a year later, when a killer went on the rampage in France, the same media outlets pointed the finger at the far right until they discovered the murderer was an Islamist named Mohamed Merah.

We can’t avoid such mistakes entirely, but we can deal with them if we know they can happen. As panic starts to die down, we must reassess our evidence and start to piece together the real story.

Horsemeat: less about health than surprise. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.