"I will spoil my paper if I don’t think any party’s right for me". Photo: Rama Knight
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Jamal Edwards: "If hundreds of thousands of kids registered, that could sway the election"

The media entrepreneur Jamal Edwards on politics, his past, and why young people should make sure they register to vote – even if it's to spoil their ballot papers.

Jamal Edwards is the 24-year-old media entrepreneur and self-made multimillionaire who grew up on an Acton council estate. After a few years of amateur film-making, having received a video camera for Christmas when he was 15, he founded the broadcasting company SBTV, which makes music videos and puts them on YouTube. The videos attract a huge number of hits, which make it a highly lucrative business model, gaining its fortune from advertising revenues.

Already a high-profile figure in the entertainment industry, Edwards is fast becoming well-known for his involvement in politics. He backs the campaign Bite the Ballot, which has been raising awareness of its mission to get more young people on the electoral register before the general election next year via the recent YouTube "Leaders Live" debates.

I met him at Google HQ in London on 12 May this year, when he was working with YouTube on some videos ahead of the European and local elections that month.

 

Anoosh Chakelian: You've been involved in politics for quite a while, haven't you?

Jamal Edwards: I haven’t made it known, but I’ve sort of had a little dibble and dabble for quite a few years. The first politics I was involved in were the Spirit of London Awards, when I went to 10 Downing Street and interviewed David Cameron. That was my first experience of it.

AC: I’ve seen that interview...

JE: I hate it!

AC: Why do you hate it?

JE: I don't know, it’s just – wait, no, I did one with Ed Miliband, that’s the one I didn’t like. I was young. I had like ten chains on, Beats by Dre around my neck. I wasn’t articulating myself clearly. But it was all right, it was a good experience.

AC: What did you think of Cameron and Miliband?

JE: I don’t know what to think. David Cameron was a bit more controlled. They had to see the questions before I asked them, they took some of the questions out. I don’t know what to say. Ed Miliband, even though we had to stop the interview because time was going over, Ed still carried it on and let me ask my questions. I think I still had to show them my questions, which is a bit controlling. But other than that, I guess they’re just two decent people. I don’t know what to say about them! I’d like to do it again.

AC: Why did you want to interview them in the first place?

JE: I thought I could’ve had a chance to bridge that gap [between politicians and young people]. I don’t really see any interviews with them where young people consume content. They may go and do interviews on the BBC or ITV, but who’s watching those news programmes? So I wanted to put them on my platform where a lot of young people are watching the content, for them to voice their opinions.

AC: Is there a problem in this country with young people not connecting with politics?

JE: Yes, 100 per cent. It’s either due to the jargon that they’re using, or it’s not very accessible for young people to consume it. Some people are though. There are some people who are very switched on and they get it, but there are other people who say, “forget it, they don’t care about us, they’re in another world to us”. So a lot of it is segregated.

AC: What can politicians do to appeal more to young people? Is it even their responsibility to do so?

JE: Yes and no. It’s a bit of a difficult one. If they had an open, free-for-all platform, where they would answer your questions truthfully and honestly, and you can send them questions and they answer it, that I think sort of breaks down the barrier. Because then if you get a load of young people going on to those platforms and wanting to speak to them, wanting to hear answers, then that would be a great thing. Then young people will feel like they’re listening to them. They might think, “oh, they’re not going to take it on board”, but at least they’ve had the opportunity to ask their questions.

AC: You clearly think this is important, considering your backing for Bite the Ballot...

JE: I think it’s important, because there was that saying... I’m not going to say it because it sounds cringe...

AC: Go on.

JE: It’s the Gandhi saying: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I feel like where I live there are different social groups on my estate: there are people who are on the wrong path, doing mad stuff, and then there are people who want to change and get out of my area. And there are the people who are out of the area, doing their own thing. I see the people who are on the edge, they don’t necessarily want to be there, doing that mad stuff, getting in trouble with the police, being in and out of prison, but they want to be successful in their life. They want to change, they want to be the change. So that’s what got me into politics. And to learn about it, because I don’t really feel like I learnt about it in school. So I feel like I can learn now.

AC: Do you feel that when you were growing up, you could have gone down one of those routes that you’ve just described?

JE: Yeah, I think anyone can go either way. I always had a really short attention span, so I was always getting in trouble for that! But I feel like I hung around with loads of different people, and so had loads of different cultures of life, whereas some people only have one culture of life, and that’s it. So I feel like it could’ve gone either way. There are things that happened that kept me on the straight path.

AC: Like what?

JE: Like minor little troubles. Just troublesome things. What kids do! I remember silly things like throwing a rock and smashing a window. Stupid stuff like that.

AC: Do you still live where you grew up?

JE: No, I live down the road, but I still go and visit it a lot. I still go and visit it all the time. All my friends still live there as well. Bits and bobs.

AC: And what’s their reaction to your involvement in politics, and your success generally?

JE: My real life friends think it’s a good thing. But there’s a bad thing with the internet – a lot of people will talk on the internet but not really mean what they’re saying. A lot of my real friends understand it, but the people on the internet are like: “Why are you doing this? You’ve sold your soul to the devil! You’ve done this, you’ve done that!” Those are the digital kids. They’re born on the internet. So they find out their facts from the internet. If they see something about politics on the internet, or about the Illuminati, or a secret society, they’re going to believe that for gospel. Whereas my real friends who are my age don’t believe in that rubbish. They just think, “oh, they [politicians] can’t help us, they don’t believe in us”. So you’ve got the digital kid and the real-life people.

AC: What are you hoping to achieve in the future, in terms of politics?

JE: I hope to make myself much more educated in politics so that I can make an informed decision, and I hope to be so educated that when anyone comes and quizzes me I can tell them the rights and wrongs, and show them the way, that it’s not all about negativity, and educate them as well.

AC: Who will you be voting for in the upcoming election?

JE: I’m not going to vote for anyone. I don’t feel like there’s anyone out there. I don’t know anything about it.

[At this point, Bite the Ballot's director Michael Sani steps in and reminds him to “mention the fact that you’ll do a protest vote".]

I know, I know, I know. I’m educating myself. So if anything, I will spoil my paper if I don’t think any party’s right for me.

AC: But you will go to the ballot box?

JE: I will school myself on what each party can bring for me, and if it doesn’t, if I don’t think it’s good for me, then I just won’t get involved. I’ll spoil my paper. That’s what I tell a lot of people to do as well, at least if you’re registered to vote, you’re a vote worth winning. But if you’re not registered at all, then who cares? You’re a no one. But if you had hundreds and thousands of kids spoiling their ballot paper, then obviously someone would think, “wait, hold up”. If someone made policies towards those hundreds of thousands of people, that could sway the vote of who could win the election.

The next Leaders Live debate will be with Nick Clegg at 7pm, 16 December

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why Labour's manifesto wasn't regressive

The Institute for Fiscal Studies' analysis did not take into account the progressive effect that most of the party's policies would have. 

Think tankers, for example at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation and IPPR, often like to use ‘distributional analysis’ to assess the impacts of policy on households, and these analyses are often picked up on in wider debates over fairness.

To test whether a policy change is ‘progressive’ – where its impact on poorer households is more positive than it is on richer households – a preferred method is to group all households in the population into buckets, ordered from lowest income to highest, and show the average effect of a policy for each bucket.

The benefits of this type of analysis are obvious. The relatively complicated question of progressivity can, at least for a given metric, be reduced to a visually clear and accessible chart: answering the question of fairness seemingly irrefutably, at least in quantifiable terms.

An influential part of the IFS’s excellent election manifesto analysis was just such a chart, showing the distributional impact of all tax and benefit proposals from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos (reproduced below).

The analysis is striking on two accounts. First, it appears to show that the policies in Labour’s manifesto are almost perfectly regressive: from the second to the ninth decile, the poorer a family is, the worse off Labour’s plans would make them. Second, Labour’s plans appear pretty regressive even relative to the other two parties: almost as regressive as the Conservatives, and far more so than the Liberal Democrats.

This chart in particular has helped fuel a broad, alternative narrative that has emerged about the Labour manifesto since the election. This narrative suggests that, far from being radical, the impact of the policies recommended wasn’t even redistributive. For example, John Rentoul reproduced the same chart in his article for the Independent and Andrew Harrop leant on IFS analysis for his piece in the Guardian. Less formally, the arguments have attracted particular traction on social media with commentators such as Robert Peston at ITV and Jeremy Cliffe at the Economist reposting the chart on Twitter.

***

Is this correct? Would the effects of implementing Labour’s manifesto be not only to take away from the poor, but to take away far more than they would from the rich? The answer is either an unequivocal ‘no’ or ‘we don’t know because the analysis hasn’t been done’, depending on the interpretation of ‘effect’. But the answer certainly is not ‘yes’.

Commentators have misinterpreted the IFS work in two important ways.

First, the IFS did not assess the whole of the Labour manifesto. They did not even reflect most of it.

Distributional analysis is most effective in assessing impacts that can be measured, reasonably unambiguously, in a monetised form. Quite sensibly then, and as is often standard practice, the IFS applied their analysis to tax and benefit reforms only – excluding services or other government programmes. Even tax measures where the ‘effective incidence’ (the final, often indirect impact of a tax on households, as opposed to the entity that might have paid the tax in the first instance such as a firm) is equivocal, such as corporation tax, were excluded.

This means the analysis only assessed a fraction of the Labour manifesto’s tax rises (around £8bn from £49bn) and spending commitments (around £4bn from £49bn). In the case of Labour, unlike the manifesto itself which was supposedly cost neutral, the analysis included almost twice as many ‘takeaways’ (tax rises) as it did ‘giveaways’ (additional welfare support).

The final picture, then, is not a reflection of the whole manifesto, but of less than 8 per cent of spending commitments and 16 per cent of tax rises. Some of the measures excluded would likely have had a broadly progressive impact, such as increasing the living wage to £10 per hour, applying VAT to private school fees, scrapping planned giveaways in the taxation of inheritance and capital gains, restoring the Educational Maintenance Allowance and boosting Sure Start.

For those reforms that reflected a stronger principle of universalism – such as the National Education Service, increased child care and scrapping university tuition fees – the effects are less clear and possibly regressive in a strict accountancy sense.

But the IFS work cannot help us reach a conclusion either way because they are excluded from the analysis. Since the UK is one of only six countries among 35 OECD members where the state spends more on welfare in kind than it does in cash, it would be an especially poor outcome for our political discourse if benefits in kind were to be excluded from our redistributive conversation altogether.

The second reason is that the IFS did not at any stage assess manifesto commitments in isolation.

All distributional analysis is essentially an exercise in simulating a number of scenarios, one of which is treated as a ‘baseline’, and all the others as counterfactuals. The estimated impact of a specific counterfactual scenario is essentially just the total difference observed with the baseline scenario.

In addition to the issue of which, and how many, manifesto measures are included, the issue of what is in or out of the baseline relative to the counterfactuals is therefore also critical.

In the case of the recent IFS work, the baseline excluded the suite of policies that have already been legislated for and in some cases already begun to be implemented but nonetheless not come into full effect. The IFS make this clear by labelling each manifesto scenario in the chart as the sum of both ‘current plans’ and the personal tax and benefit announcements from a respective manifesto.  Most notable among them is the introduction of the coalition government’s flagship welfare reform: Universal Credit (UC).

This choice is not without merit but it is also not beyond question: for example the Office for Budget Responsibility’s standard baseline always includes all planned policy that is presently legislated for.

For the purposes of assessing distributional impact, then, the IFS excluded the entire system of UC (which has been legislated for since 2013) from the baseline. This meant that each of the counterfactual scenarios  (including the Labour one) included the full effects of UC as well.

This had an especially large impact on the analysis since the backlog of government reforms currently still being implemented dwarfs the comparatively smaller tax and benefit measures proposed in the manifestos. The Liberal Democrats are the closest to an exception where, unlike Labour and the Conservatives, a far greater proportion of their spending plans affected welfare spending in general, and spending on UC in particular.

Whether this is the right way to conduct analysis depends entirely on the question that is being asked.

If the question is: compared with the world as it is configured today, would the tax and benefit system be more regressive in five years’ time after taking account of all the government’s current reforms that are in the process of implementation in addition to party manifesto pledges? The answer is the same for all parties because of the sheer scale of government reforms in the pipeline: ‘yes’. (Although the point remains that this would still only represent a small portion of total tax and spending announcements from Labour’s manifesto in particular, so the full picture is still unknown).

But if the question was: after taking into account the government’s current reforms to today’s tax and benefit system would the additional impact of the personal tax and benefit reforms scored from Labour’s election manifesto, taken in isolation, be regressive? The answer is absolutely not.

If interpreted correctly, the IFS analysis actually gives the answer to both of these questions. Compared with the world as it currently is (essentially the x-axis itself) all the manifesto policies are broadly regressive, albeit to varying degrees. But compared with the world as currently planned (the IFS’s scenario labelled in green) both the Labour and Liberal Democrat lines are clearly more progressive.

What determined whether the absolute figures presented in the chart were largely negative rather than positive – and therefore perhaps the immediate impression that the analysis leaves with readers – was the choice of baseline. If the ‘current plans’ scenario were to have been the baseline (as is more consistent with the OBR’s standard baseline) the Labour and Liberal Democratic manifestos would have been presented as having a net positive and progressive impact on households in the bottom half of the distribution.

Had that chart been produced instead, any alternative narratives about the Labour manifesto would have been less likely to misinterpret the evidence – although the chart itself would have been no more right or wrong for it.

***

This discussion does not amount to a criticism of either distributional analysis of personal tax and benefits in general, nor of the IFS’s work in particular. The former is an essential tool – when applied appropriately – for assessing particular measures of fairness. The latter execute their work extremely well and in a way that often enhances the quality of the UK’s political conversation.

In particular, on both the main points raised above (the limited number of manifesto measures included and the choice of baselines), the IFS are entirely transparent. The title of their chart is labelled as analysis of ‘personal tax and benefit measures’ only, and the full list of policies included are published for all to see. They also make clear that their analysis has excluded ‘current plans’ from the baseline, and that current plans are included in each counterfactual scenario. The author was also extremely helpful and obliging in answering any queries.

The very worst that can be said of the IFS in this instance is that they have not gone further out of their way to tackle what has grown into – at times – a dangerous misinterpretation of their analysis. But in a political climate where both wilful and accidental misinterpretation of economic evidence and theory is endemic – and often on far more serious issues than the technical progressivity of a single manifesto – their lack of intervention is unfortunate but understandable.

Neither do the points raised here absolve the Labour manifesto from an alternative or progressive critique: in particular, the absence of a more serious reversal of the government’s welfare plans is highly conspicuous, not least given that the Liberal Democrats were able to go far further in their own commitments. And the critique of universalism from a principle of reciprocity, though not the final word, remains an area of useful discussion.

Probably the best conclusion that can be drawn from all this echoes that made by Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation in May. Commentators should be careful to not overstate the decisiveness of broad-brush analysis during an election campaign, where seemingly mere technicalities over methods and assumptions can actually shape entirely the final interpretation as much as the facts themselves.

Instead, more attention should be given to the broader direction of travel and the choices on offer.

At the last election, the real debate centred on the size and scale of the state, the balance of state support between welfare in cash or in kind, the divide between young and old, between the super-rich and the rest, and how principles of universalism, reciprocity and targeted redistribution should be brought to bear on questions of fairness. 

These are the tests against which commentators should judge our political parties at the next election as well.