What happens when you run the party's manifestos through Democracy 3? Photo: YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Simulection: How I'm testing the party’s 2015 manifestos on the video game Democracy 3

What happens when you run the main political parties' 2015 manifestos through a politics simulation game?

It’s easy to promise something in a manifesto. After all, by the time we’ve elected that party, it’s five long years before we can get rid of it. And the vast majority of the promises are broken within the first few months – or the first five minutes of coalition negotiation. So, in this day and age of fancy tech and data-driven everything, is there a way we can test out the validity of the party’s commitments before we vote? Of course there is. Well, sort of.

You’ll see elsewhere on the site today the first of our simulated election columns, where we test out the party’s manifestos. In this post, I will briefly explain the mechanism by which we do that, the software I use, and how I interpret each party’s sometimes intentionally obscure pseudo-commitments as certain actions when elected.

We've done this once before, for the 2010 election. Like that time, we’ll be simulating each manifesto. We’ll do the five main parties that are operating nationally – Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, Ukip and the Greens.

The software we’re testing their promises on is Democracy 3. It’s sold as a video game but is better thought of as a simulation, focused on representing the economies and and political systems of a number of Western democracies. We’re not claiming that its results are anything other than entertainment – but the process of interpreting each party’s policies is realistic, because I have to work out how the hell you fund and implement something like "creating a national register of lobbyists", for example.

What’s good about Democracy is that it’s built as a neural network so every system feeds back into every other, to a greater or lesser degree. So if you raise the price of petrol, that’s going to piss off motorists, who might be a voting bloc all of their own, but it will please environmentalists, though it will hit the economy because it’ll damage commuting, raise food prices, and reduce the deficit, therefore affecting the country’s ability to borrow and reduce environmental pollution. Focusing just on that last point, reducing environmental pollution will reduce respiratory diseases, taking the strain off the National Health Service and improve quality of life, which should make voters happy in the long run – unless they’re motorists. This is all simulated in Democracy 3.

And, like real-world politics, luck is so much of the game. There’s a background simulation here running the larger world economy, as well as the British economy. If you’re lucky enough to take power at the start of a boom, you’re likely to be re-elected over and over. If you make your promises in a recovery, like now, and it falls back into recession, well, you’ll be lucky to get a single term. Them’s the rules of politics. To regulate that randomness, I’ll start each party from the same "save" file, meaning they’ll at least start in the same place, even if the background economic model takes them somewhere very different.

Also, like real life, you can’t change every policy at once. You need to build up political capital to do so, by staying in office and employing popular ministers. That’s not exactly like the real world, but it does reflect the plodding pace of the Houses of Parliament when enacting legislation.

Democracy is not a perfect simulation. It doesn’t simulate multi-party systems. It assumes that we operate in a two-party system, which doesn’t work so well in countries that are coalition natives or more proportional, like Germany, Italy or Israel. Even in Britain, with its majoritarian system of First Past The Post, the recent diversification of party affiliation means that we'll probably see the election result in another coalition or even a minority government. The game ignores that, instead assuming that voters just have a choice between your party and the opposition.

Much of the joy of politics is watching the Hobbesian wrangling of ambitious hacks as they ally and battle to crawl up the ranks. Yet, though Democracy 3 does simulate cabinets, it’s in a rudimentary sense compared to the much more realistic knife-in-the-dark politicking of, say, medieval politics sim Crusader Kings II or Yes, Minister. You can’t mimic Harold Wilson, playing your ministers against each other, or build up your base in your party or in the country at large. You can’t betray your friends, or blackmail a popular party grandee. This game is more about the policies – which is lucky for us, as that’s what we’re testing, rather than whether Nick Clegg has the social character to pull off a Francis Urquhart.

In other words, this is a proper simulation and, while the developer Cliff Harris does have his own political views, he’s told me that he’s tried to keep this as impartial as possible. He’s just tried to simulate the flows of cause and effect in the UK economy where that impacts the political system. Neither he nor I are claiming these are accurate – just that they’re an interesting sandbox to throw the party pledges into and see how they come out.

Now, how do we interpret the politicians' promises? For example, Labour is promising “stronger" border controls to tackle illegal immigration with "proper" entry and exit checks, "smarter" targets to reduce low-skilled migration but ensure university students and high-skilled workers are not deterred, and to outlaw employment agencies that only recruit abroad while increasing the fines for employing illegal immigrants. How do we interpret that in terms of the game? Do we simply make immigration harder and improve border controls? If that promise is unfunded, how do we deal with the cost of implementing it? Assuming, that is, that the Eds aren’t available to talk me through it.

There are other promises we simply can’t replicate in the game, either because they’re internationally-focused, written in too fine detail or simply too wishy-washy. For examplem, Labour’s “push for UK overseas territories to be put on an international blacklist if they refuse to co-operate with a drive against tax avoidance” sounds great, but ultimately doesn’t cost anything, or do anything except make Right-Thinking People mutter happily in agreement. Which, again, the simulation doesn’t replicate terribly well.

A final, quick word declaring my interests. I’m a PPE graduate (therefore inherently evil) who worked for the Lib Dems once upon a time (doubly evil) but am currently unaffiliated to any party. I’ve also written articles for the creator of Democracy 3, but that’s not the reason I’m writing these articles (I wrote the first one of these before I did any work for him, after all).

Anyway, I’ve babbled enough. Read the series as it unfolds here.

Daniel Griliopoulos blogs at Funambulism and tweets as @GriddleOctopus

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here