Luddite riots, robots and 0% support. Photo: Getty
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Simulection: What happens when you run the 2015 Conservative manifesto through a video game?

We are running the parties' manifestos through Democracy 3, an election simulation video game. Here's what happens if the Tories win...

Dave says: “One more term. Just one. To fix Labour’s legacy. To remind you. Not our fault. I’m not saying we’ve achieved everything we set out to. I’m not saying we’re not proud of what we have achieved. I’m not saying anything, really, because I’d rather hoped Ed would put his foot in it, so I wouldn’t have to. Being a Conservative is about scaring, not charming. Promising, not delivering. Resigning, not winning.

We’ve done so much. 700,000 zero-hours jobs. 900,000 hard-working families given the chance to access foodbanks. Increased immigration despite our promises. And we’ve massively expanded our national debt by 500 million pou- ahem. My useless fag appears to have got my cue cards mixed up. This one is labelled, uh, Topics to Avoid. Gove. GOVE! Where is that boy?”

So, Cameron’s government. The Prime Minister who hasn’t been elected and has promised next time round that you can’t elect him then either. This is our one shot to elect him! A limited time offer! A Tory multi-pack with a random Prime Ministerial George, Theresa or Boris included! Vote for him now or he’ll have to do motivational after-dinner speeches for the rest of his life!

We've already discovered that running the Labour manifesto through a video game resulted in an egalitarian utopia eventually – but that the first term was touch-and-go under the global recession that hit us.

Looking over the Conservative manifesto, it’s very similar to Labour’s  nearly inseparable in most commitments  but there’s an extra focus on the old, promising them that their pensions are safe, safe, safe and their inheritances will be too. Lucky that, because those are the core Tory voters, in that giant doughnut of the wealthy around London that stops in the foothills of the Midlands.

I’m starting this simulation from the same save file as I did with Labour, to try to balance any randomness in it. (You can see more caveats about the program we’re using here.) Just like Labour, the Conservatives have tied themselves up in all sorts of fiscal constraints, so there isn’t much budgetary wiggle room – no changes allowed to VAT, National Insurance or income tax, save raising the 40p tax threshold to 50p, raising the income tax threshold by £2,000 and eventually reducing income tax. Oh, and they also want to run a surplus.

I really struggled with the Labour manifesto. This one seems even more constrained, with even more spending commitments that are horribly specific. Reduce government spending by 1 per cent in the first two years, run a surplus in the fourth year and finally increase spending in the last full year. These cuts look to be two-fifths from welfare savings, one-sixth from cutting tax avoidance/evasion/planning, and the rest from departmental savings.

My first task is to see how I can save that money. It really doesn’t look like I can. Tax avoidance is a background statistic of the game; departmental spending is a political synonym for "dunno"; and much of the welfare budget is explicitly protected in the manifesto, such as pensions or childcare. So I slash what welfare I can and implement the spending freeze the tories pseudo-promised for education. Dropping that saved money straight back into the NHS is a small increase given the bloated size of the health budget relative to the economy, but that’s another manifesto commitment hit.

The Tories have promised to reduce the benefits cap to £23k, which I represent by cutting unemployment benefits a touch. However, that’s more than balanced by the huge reduction in inheritance tax, which will now only come in at £1,000,000. And which itself is matched by a huge investment in science funding and robotics.

That’s much less tax coming in and a huge amount of money spent. As all this automation will push up the unemployment rate amongst the lower paid, I fulfil another manifesto pledge to make the young unemployed work by making it mandatory for all medium-term unemployed people to do community work. I’m not winning friends here, except amongst robots.

There’s one manifesto commitment I simply can’t represent properly; build 200,000 new homes by lifting obligations on builders to build infrastructure and to include affordable housing. I’m puzzling over what to do about this when any spending decisions leave my hands tied and I notice that the global economy is taking the same path it did under Labour  a nosedive.

I have the advantage here that I think it’s going to be a long dip, so I really need to cut expenditure to fulfil those financial commitments to reduce the deficit  though I didn’t see a promise like Labour’s to reduce the national debt so theoretically I can run up the national debt in the first couple of years of recession, then run a surplus in the last two years of the parliament. Simple!

So I just cut the money necessary to reduce expenditure year-on-year, and screw the debt. Which of course means my credit rating will be in the doldrums soon enough, but c’est la vie. Foreign aid goes first. Then I introduce stringent, probing welfare fraud investigators who bring in slightly more than they cost...

The burgeoning debt and welfare cuts have unsettled the cabinet. I let the welfare minister go first, then the tax minister as they both seem really quite scared  welfare wanted to quit politics entirely to spend her remaining time with her family. Firing them terrifies the rest of the cabinet and I have to do a full reshuffle.

I look at our other committments. £13bn on transport? £50bn on HS2? £15bn on road-building? No way. I can just manage the £500m on zero-emission cars and £200m on cycling, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, our credit rating has sunk to CC. To clarify what that means, Britain in Cameron’s second term is regarded as a worse risk than Venezuela, which has been on the verge of a coup for the past year. The only current country in the world with the same Fitch rating is the Ukraine, which has been invaded by Russia. The only country with a worse credit rating, from every ratings agency, is Argentina, which has defaulted on its debts over and over.

The terror threat page all goes a bit Pete Tong at this point, with varied threats every quarter, first from the human rights society, then the capitalists at the Battenberg group, then finally settling on the well-funded, armed and numerous Revolutionary Army.

I’m still frantically trying to balance the books, which is offending every demographic under the sun. Agricultural subsidies go out of the window  pissing off farmers, alcohol duty is increased massively – pissing off everyone, and prisons are so crammed that they make the Bastille look like a model penitentiary. I finally have the money to implement the transport pledges, though it’s a mite late. I splash all the money I can on rail subsidies and road-building, which only contributes to the asthma epidemic.

I also try to throw a bit of money at tax havens and enterprise investment schemes (aka tax dodges) for the wealthy (it might not be in the manifesto, but I’ll remind you that George Osborne is Chancellor), but even they aren’t on my side.

The election is looming. I take a moment to look at the state of the country. On the upside, we’re hugely technologically advanced, thanks to my careful funding of robots and nanomachines, and relatively productive and green. On the downside, there’s lynch mobs in the streets, class warfare as society collapses, inner city riots, booming crime rates, luddite riots smashing those lovely new robots, and extreme nationalism (more about that when we do the Ukip manifesto.) Poverty has rocketed, equality plummeted, health collapsed, crime boomed, and generally the country has collapsed. Quite impressive in just five years!

The polls have me on… 0 per cent. Wait, is that possible? The cabinet revolts, so I reshuffle them just in time to line up for the guillotine. And I cut income tax as a last desperate hurrah, like every Chancellor ever, and so I can claim I carried out our manifesto pledges to the best possible degree. What legacy has Dave left for Boris, Theresa and the boy George?

The result… the result is every New Statesman reader’s dream…

Read our methodology hereFollow the rest of the series as it unfolds here. And here's what happened with the manifestos in the 2010 election.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.