The police's crime figures are not rated as a 'national statistic'.
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Police crime figures haven’t fallen – but that’s a good thing

Today's crime figures have shone light on an issue made famous by a landmark TV series: do the police fix their stats? The fact that their measure of crime hasn't fallen may actually be a good thing.

Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear… you juke the stats and majors become colonels.

One of the recurring themes of The Wire, the landmark 2000s-era television series on Baltimore’s drug-addled plight, is how the police fix crime statistics.

Do our police fix the stats? Recent revelations suggest they might. In November, whistleblowers told a select committee of MPs that they did. And in January, the government's top statistician downgraded the police's numbers – they are no longer counted as a 'national statistic'.

Today's release of the yearly crime figures for England and Wales have reignited the debate. The police's figures suggest there has been no change in crime.

From March 2013 to March 2014, crime fell by 0.4 per cent – its smallest decrease in a decade.

This seems discouraging. But it may actually mean these stats are the most reliable in years.

The problem with police numbers is the people that produce them are the same people who are judged by them. As The Wire showed, there is a crippling conflict of interest at the heart of the process.

This encouraged the Office of National Statistics to create an alternative crime measure in 1981. Their survey, of around 50,000 households, has been collected yearly for more than a decade – and has become the more reliable measure of crime.

According to the ONS, crime fell by 14 per cent in the past year.

Their data may be more accurate – but it also allows us to judge the police’s numbers. If there is a big difference between the number of crimes the ONS is reporting and the police are recording, that may indicate the police are producing ‘soft’ stats.

It appears that may have happened throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The ONS’s survey consistently reported more than three times as many crimes as the police. But after a reporting change in the late 1990s, the difference came down.

By the early 2000s the survey was only reporting twice as many crimes as the police. In recent years that ratio began to creep back up towards a three-fold difference. But, thanks to the fall in the ONS’s measure, the difference has fallen back down to the level of the early 2000s.

Simon Jenkins, the one-time crime reporter and long-time national journalist, recently argued that "police statistics have been a conspiracy against truth for decades". "The only crime figures that should count are those of the BCS."

That may be so. But comparing the two sets of numbers can give us an indication of how unrealistic the police numbers can be.

While big falls in crime make good headlines, we should be more concerned with the legitimacy of the numbers we are fed. If today’s figures are an indication of better stats, they should be welcomed.

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.