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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle