What happens when you run the party's manifestos through Democracy 3? Photo: YouTube screengrab
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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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder