Comment: Too often people turn to stereotypes

We all think we know about what's going on in this country. We live here, most of us were born here, we read the news, watch the telly, listen to the radio.

We know about Britain. Right? No. Actually, it turns out we don’t.

I read a fantastically interesting bit of research this week.

Which, bluntly, made a change, because I spent quite a lot of my time reading research that isn’t all that interesting. But this was great – incisive, punchy and enlightening.

And it was all about how we really don’t know all that much about what’s going on about some fairly fundamental things.

Take benefit fraud. Pick up the Daily Mail or the Daily Express on the average day, and you’ll find something telling you benefit fraud is bringing down the nation, that the economy is on the brink of collapse because of the larceny of benefit claimants.

So what do you reckon? Out of every £100 spent on benefits, how much do you think is claimed fraudulently? The average answer to that question, according to the Ipsos MORI poll, was £24. We think that nearly a quarter of benefits are dodgy. Did you vote higher or lower?

The correct answer is that, out of the nominal £100, the fraudulent bit is....70p. Less than one per cent, and a whopping 34 times less than we suspect.

Crime’s a good one. Far more than half of us think crime is rising, when it isn’t. About half are sure violent crime is rising, despite it falling sharply over the past six years.

How about this. We spent £79bn per year on jobseekers’s allowance and pensions. How do you think the money divides up?

Half and half, perhaps, or maybe one much bigger than the other?

What do you think the bigger drain is – pensioners or job-seekers?

The answer – pensioners. Pensions cost us a staggering £74bn per year, while jobseeker’s allowance is less than seven per cent of that.

But nearly a third of people think JSA costs more.

Let me give you another one – which of these would save us the most money – capping benefits to £26,000, raising the pension age to 66 for men and women, or stopping child benefit for wealthy parents?

Got your answer? Well, capping benefits would save us £260m, restricting child benefit brings in £1.7bn but raising the reitrement age reaps £5bn.

The point of all these statistics is not just that they’re quite fun and useful for a pub quiz (although they are).

They’re about informing ourselves of our own country, and our own challenges.

Too often, people turn to stereotypes in search of someone to blame – benefit scroungers, immigrants (a much smaller slice of the population that most people think), or those claiming job-seeker’s allowance, for instance.

Yes, all these things have a cost – but it’s not nearly so much as paying for pensions, and nobody ever criticises them.

Our society is a rich, textured and fascinating tapestry, not a big bunch of stereotypes.

We live in an era where misinformation can be passed on faster than ever before, with potentially damaging results.

The trick is always to ask one question – how do I know that this is true?

A few words on Gianfranco Zola.

I've had a bit of a flip-flop long-distance relationship with Franco. To start with, as I wrote in these pages, I thought the decision to ditch Sean Dyche and parachute Zola in was a shocker. Having failed to motivate West Ham, I couldn’t see why he’d do any better at Vicarage Road.

But I was wrong. Last season, the Hornets were sporadically exhilarating and the end of the Leicester play-off game was incredibly exciting.

It was a good team effort, although plenty of credit goes to two players – Matej Vydra and Nathaniel Chalobah, both on loan, and neither destined to return for the start of this campaign.

The play-off final was, I think, the first hint things weren’t going well. Make no mistake – Watford should have won that game, because Crystal Palace were awful. It just so happened that, with Vydra injured, Zola’s team were just as bad.

This season started with some promise, but has tailed off very badly indeed. The team has lost its resolve, looks disjointed and lacks purpose.

The team is less than the sum of its parts – the precise opposite of what a manager strives to achieve.

The performances against Yeovil and Leicester, in particular, were terrible.

I wasn’t calling for Zola to be sacked. I think football is wounded by short-term thinking and I also think it’s often self-defeating to call for a manager to be changed halfway through a season.

But nor do I think this is an awful turn-up for the Horns. Yes, Zola was a good and decent man with pleasant manners and a stunning footballing pedigree.

But really – so what? If the club just want a nice bloke in charge, then I’ll take the job. I’ll buy flowers, make tea and give everyone a free scarf. I’d be the nicest manager in Britain.

We wouldn’t win anything, but by heavens, we’d be polite and clubbable.

Zola, I fear, is not a winner. He doesn’t have that mongrel streak that Ferguson, Mourinho or Wenger have, that utter focus and determination to do whatever it takes.

Too many games have run away from him this season, too many players – and yes, Troy Deeney, I’m looking at you – are underperforming.

Yes, the football last season was sometimes lovely to watch, and those memories will linger on.

Perhaps, given time, he would have grown into the role and developed that killer instinct. Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.

Because while the outpouring of affection for Zola has been impressive, the booing that has greeted so many final whistles has been just as loud.

Watford came into this season with some new players and ambitions of automatic promotion but now they have to be wary of avoiding relegation.

Something has gone badly wrong and Zola has to take some of the blame for that. To his credit, he has walked, even if there are some who would rather he’d stayed to steady the ship.

But the next manager needs to be a winner. Nice guys don’t always finish on top.

And finally – enticingly – a happy whisper for book-lovers in the town. Watford has been without a book shop since Waterstone’s left the Harlequin centre, back in the days before it was the Intu, a move that saddens me every time I fancy browsing round the shelves.

The good news is that Waterstone’s is, I understand, actively looking for a new home in Watford town centre.

Having got back HMV to do the music, could we be about to get back a place to buy books? I hope so.


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