Assessing party manifestos more objectively - RSA

Assessing party manifestos more objectively


  • Picture of Dave Donaghy FRSA
    Dave Donaghy FRSA
  • Deliberative democracy

When we read political manifesto pledges, do we really understand what they say? If not, is it because we are failing to understand clear statements, or is it because the statements aren't clear? If they're not clear, how can we clarify them? Dave Donaghy FRSA explores.

Politicians are not trusted: this is made clear in the recent UK House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Report, s8: "The problem, put starkly, is that the public do not trust politicians. ... This lack of trust in politicians leads to cynicism, with 56 per cent of the public saying that they tend to ignore what parties and politicians say because they know they cannot trust them."

This mistrust is born not wholly from untrustworthy statements about the past or present, but also from unrealistic or misleading promises about the future: "making a promise to voters they know they may not be able to deliver" is reported by independent fact checkers, Full Fact, as one of the two "most unacceptable behaviours that politicians/parties can engage in".

Of course, there will be entirely reasonable scenarios where manifesto promises cannot be fulfilled due to changing circumstances; politicians campaign based on perfect scenarios, where there is no social crisis or global pandemic. But we cannot reasonably judge a politician at the end of a political session if we did not even fully understand what they committed to at the start of the session: politicians and electors must begin with enough well-presented information to have a meeting of minds.

For example, Full Fact can now analyse statements in real time and effectively refute inaccuracies. But a promise does not fit comfortably into this fact-checking model; perhaps the best we can hope for is that statements should at least be phrased to allow detailed analysis later on, when an elected term ends.

Retroactive continuity in fiction

Retcon – retroactive continuity – is a literary device allowing previously established facts in a work of fiction to be overruled in later works for narrative convenience.

For example, The West Wing Season 4 Episode 6 "Game On" introduces Will Bailey's assistant Elsie Snuffin, whom Bailey apparently met when she was writing for a comedy show. In later episodes, Bailey and Snuffin work at the White House, with Snuffin now being Bailey's step-sister.

The key here for me is that, even on rewatching – I am an enormous West Wing fan who has seen all relevant episodes perhaps a dozen times – I cannot see an explicit contradiction in Snuffin's introduction; while, as step-siblings, the two might well have met initially through a comedy show. However, it does seem odd that in response to "who's that over there, and how do you know her?", Bailey's response is anything other than "oh, Elsie? That's my sister."

Here is the crux of the matter: we did not see enough detail in the introduction episode to fully understand the relationship; on reflection, I cannot go back to the first character introduction and say conclusively that they were not step-siblings, but I was very surprised when it turns out that they were.

I have no objection to retcon in fiction; the practicalities of writing evidently sometimes demand it. But while, broadly speaking, manifesto pledges sound reasonably well-phrased, the devil is in the detail: the potential for deliberate political retcon is glaring and damaging.

The UK’s Conservative Party Manifesto

Of course, it is much easier to judge delivery of manifesto pledges made by parties or candidates that gain power than by ones that do not. In the UK, this naturally leads us to consider the Conservative manifesto for the UK general election in December 2019, where the Conservatives gained a significant overall majority in the House of Commons.

In November 2019, just over two weeks before the election, Metro newspaper reported the top five manifesto policies for each major party. We can at least examine the following language used in that article for the Conservative manifesto, even though the wording and presentation may not be identical to that used by the party itself.

  1. Leave the European Union by 2020.
  2. Increase the number of nurses in England by 50,000 by 2023.
  3. Improve energy efficiency of social housing.
  4. Make the UK carbon neutral by 2050.
  5. Create 250,000 new childcare facilities.

Let's look at each one of these in turn, using the fairly coarse SMART criteria sometimes used in project management.

Leave the European Union by 2020

While the first of these seems simple, we see even here the potential for confusion: the UK left the EU in January 2020, and the implementation period was due to end before January 2021. But there is scope here for subjectivity: much has been made of opinion on whether continued membership of a single market or customs union might effectively mean that the UK has not in fact left the EU.

– Specific: Yes.

– Measurable: Yes, but with some subjectivity on what departure means.

–  Achievable: Yes.

– Relevant: Yes.

– Time-boxed: Yes, although some might say that "by 2020" means "before 2020 begins", and some might mean "by the end of 2020".

The potential for retcon is medium. If the UK, or part of the UK – Northern Ireland is an obvious candidate here – were to remain in a single market or customs union, then it would be easy to see frustrating, inconclusive arguments that reflect the difference of opinion about whether this has been achieved.

Increase the number of nurses in England by 50,000 by 2023

While this pledge also comes with a time deadline, it has not yet passed. Even so, though, we have already seen significant disagreement in the press over its meaning.

– Specific: Yes.

– Measurable: Yes, but with significant confusion and subjectivity.

– Achievable: Hard to say.

– Relevant: Yes.

– Time-boxed: Yes, ignoring differences of opinion over what "by 2023" means.

Here the retcon potential is high. Even ignoring the simple time question, the question of what constitutes a new nurse has already been raised in the press, with the Mirror newspaper reporting on 24 November 2019 that "Boris Johnson's '50,000 new nurses' claim includes 18,500 existing nurses".

Improve energy efficiency of social housing

The report suggests a target government spend of "£6.3 billion ... for housing [saving each household] up to £750 a year." The key words here are "up to", whose only guaranteed meaning is that the government does not expect any households to save more than£750; these words introduce huge retcon potential.

– Specific: No. A saving target of "up to £750" is effectively meaningless.

– Measurable: No, without specific detail.

– Achievable: Impossible to tell without detail.

– Relevant: Yes.

– Time-boxed: No, aside from an implicit time-box provided by the life of a Parliament.

The retcon potential here ishigh and, without detail, one could easily argue that unless energy efficiency is measurably worse, then the goal has been achieved.

Make the UK carbon neutral by 2050

Here we see a much more difficult time problem: at what point might we judge that a party had failed to meet a pledge intended to be fulfilled more than 30 years after it was made? Would it be reasonable, at an election in 2024, to make any kind of judgment at all on whether a government had even come close to fulfilling this pledge?

Moreover, it is hard to imagine that the electorate in general understands carbon neutrality enough to judge whether or not it has been achieved.

– Specific: No - there is not enough clarity on the meaning of carbon neutrality.

– Measurable: No - without a detailed definition of carbon neutrality.

– Achievable: Impossible to say without more detail.

– Relevant: Yes.

– Time-boxed: No, not in any reasonable sense, anyway, given that the manifesto relates to a Parliament and therefore a government with a term capped at five years.

The retcon potential isvery high in this case. Given that the timeframe claimed by the pledge is around 30 years, it would be effectively impossible to refute a claim that this pledge had been delivered.

Create 250,000 new childcare facilities

There is an obvious potential confusion here: are we talking about childcare for 250,000 children who would not otherwise receive childcare? Or does one session of care for one child count as one ‘childcare facility’? Does one additional childcare facility mean that one child who was not receiving childcare at all will instead get regular long-term care?

A misunderstanding here could mean that two electors have expectations that differ by a factor of a hundred or more. Additionally, the Metro article talks of a "£1 billion fund" to enable this. Again, we have a source of confusion: some might imagine that this fund is an annual fund, and others might imagine a fund for the lifetime of a five-year government. Here we see a potential discrepancy factor of up to five.

– Specific: Poor as both the number of children helped, and the size of the fund to fulfil the pledge, are poorly stated with a huge potential discrepancy in understanding.

– Measurable: Poor, due to the lack of clarity in the language around numbers.

– Achievable: Yes, at least the headline pledge considered alone is achievable, although the inherent vagueness means that this may not be achievable for the stated £1 billion.

– Relevant: Yes.

– Time-boxed: Yes, the natural lifetime of a Parliament and government are a sensible default implicit time-box.

There is high retcon potential here as thelack of clarity in the numbers alone adds a considerable amount of doubt in subsequent analysis of the delivery of this pledge.

How do we address this issue?

This question seems should be firmly inside the purview of journalists: political reporters are surely best placed to forensically examine and report on manifestos. But evidently our current political and reporting systems do not address it effectively.

How then, should we address the issue of unrealistic promises, whether accidental or deliberate? In the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Report, s29, we read that, "The Conservative Party told us that rather than regulate advertising it should be the role of the Government to ensure that there is an independent free press to facilitate robust political debate and scrutinise claims."

Here we see an example of a principle covered by the RSA’s blog Can Government be more effective as the ‘first follower’?. Government cannot and should not do everything; in this case, the government must ensure that an independent free press exists, but that free press must scrutinise not just statements of fact, but promises for the future.

To this end, a Retcon Potential Index might facilitate that scrutiny by giving us some objectivity in measuring how easy a politician would find it later on to claim that they had meant something else and achieved it, even while being questioned by someone who vehemently disagrees with them.

The question, then, is about defining this index to give us some objective way to identify manifesto promises that do not effectively allow a meeting of minds now, and which can therefore be misused in the future to give a misleading view of history. Those best placed to define and monitor this index might well be those with a background in independent fact checking – Full Fact, for example – and those with expertise in clarity of language such as the Plain English Campaign.

We are keen to explore such potential collaborations.

Dave works as a software engineer for Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Bristol, and is a trustee of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.

These opinions are not those of HPE or the BCS.

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