Paramilitary cults, alcoholism and a superhero. Photo: Getty
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Simulection: What happens when you run the 2015 Lib Dem 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 Liberal Democrats win...

Nick Clegg says: “Me, Prime Minister?! You’ve got to be kidding. Or perhaps it just goes to show people don’t like silver bullets, but tough choices. And the Liberal Democrats, the lithely-muscular, iron-sandaled Liberal Democrats, the Liberal Democrats who aren’t afraid to break promises; we’re the tough party.

What will I do as Prime Minister? This time around, we’ll carry out all our promises, get the nation back on its feet. We’ll add a heart and a brain and a liver and a bile duct to our non-existent coalition partner. Protect jobs through free school meals for everyone. Paddy Ashdown will be dispatched simultaneously, instantaneously, momentarily to deal with all warzones, bullies or bastards. We’ll just add the extra zeros on the end of the national debt together to cancel them out. The NHS will be run entirely by angels. Friendly dragons will pare your cuticles with their talons! Lend a hand to the mums and dads of Alarm Clock Britain! Tuition fees will be made of candy floss! Danny Alexander! The yellow bird of freedom will fly anew on the British flag!

Sorry Miriam! I didn’t know I was shouting! God, sorry, I know your work is important. Sorry, sorry. I’ll just run the country more quietly, from the den. Run the country..? Oh, God, I’m in charge. I’m in charge. I’m in..? Oh God, oh God, oh God.

I’d better quickly reiterate a conflict of interest mentioned on the methodology page; once upon a time I worked for the Liberal Democrats. Don’t worry, I’m so bitter and jaded now that erstwhile affection won’t affect my judgement on their policies one way or the other. I’m just here to see if their manifesto commitments work in this simulation.

A more troubling caveat is that I’ve become aware of the foibles of the programme we’re using, which means I’m fairly certain that the Lib Dems are going to hit the same problem as the Tories and Labour did  a global recession. That prior knowledge isn’t much help, as I still have to try to implement the manifesto, but it may make me more cautious as to when I carry out huge projects like electrifying the entire UK rail network or taking Paddy’s favourite stiletto away.

I have to admit that I skim-read the Lib Dem manifesto, as it was twice the length of the Labour or Tory tomes, and there’s a pile of factual books about babycare staring me in the face. Without being glib, that’s not the fiction I want to spend my spare time reading. By that I mean that the Lib Dems themselves have stopped pretending that they are a party of solo government, which was the rhetoric up to 2010.

Now their message is that they’re a centrist party of coalition, like the Free Democratic Party of Germany (a long-running liberal party that failed to make it into parliament at the last election. Not to draw any parallels.) The people who wrote this manifesto never expected that it would be implemented at all; it’s a negotiating point for coalition and never intended for any real world scenario, despite its length. So fiction!

Given that extra length, it’s surprising how similar it is to the two main parties’ manifestos. Maybe the blues and reds just had better editors? The Lib-Dems have the same commitment to balancing the current budget, in their case by 2017, and they want to make debt fall as a percentage of GDP. They’re also committed to borrowing £70bn less than labour and cutting £50bn less than the Tories, raising the personal tax allowance to £12,500.

However they have a lot more detail to all their promises. I can’t really see a coherent central theme to their manifesto  just thousands of independent tweaks so I’ll implement tax measures first, then start spending the tiny amount of money we’ve got spare on whatever of their policies work at the time. The two tax commitments I can see, which are rather vague, are that “the richest pay their fair share and corporations cannot avoid their tax responsibilities”. The rhetoric of the first one implies that a punitive wealth tax seems appropriate; the second I can only simulate by putting up corporate tax rates. I follow that up by limiting debt agency activity, to help the poorest.

Then I focus on policies, y’know, for kids. I increase child benefit because a) the Lib-Dems have committed to extending child care to two-year-olds, and b) because it’s the only way of simulating a rise in the bottom tax band in Democracy 3. I lift a few people out of poverty and feel a bit happier.

It’s worth noting that because we’ve started with the same starting conditions as Labour and Conservatives, we have the same starting problems  alcoholism, an asthma epidemic, homelessness, organised crime, low productivity, technological backwardness, ghettos, street gangs, and vigilante mobs to deal with them. Getting rid of any of these would probably help us win the next election, but they’re all horribly sticky and tend to require tons of spare money – which we don’t have.

In the next six months, I hit education. Using the cash from the tax rises, I increase the main state education budget by £2.5bn, and carry out the commitment to free school meals. I also stomp on creationism that’s crept into the education system and change sex education to make it more explicit. Oddly enough, liberals love me and the religious hate me.

Another dilemma forces me to legalise GM crops  which I later learn is counter to Lib Dem policy. Meanwhile, a man dressed as a superhero is keeping the crime rate down singlehandedly  perhaps it’s the Kinnock-nemesis Captain Beany who’s taken to wearing a suspiciously orange suit. Very unusually, he pops up a couple of times over the term giving the crime rate a solid thumping.

I’ve got a nearly balanced budget now, but I need more cuts to fulfil that big NHS funding commitment. I can’t touch pensions because of the "triple lock" promise the coalition partners both share, so I slash the army budget instead, right down to "purely ceremonial" and hope no one notices. Eventually, they do.

Meanwhile, it’s that time again  the global economy is crashing! Despite running a really solid budget surplus, my credit rating is downgraded. That’s not a big problem, as we’ve done what we promised and balanced the budget. Now we can unbalance it.

We start with a small step, by subsidising bicycles. Our bigger commitments, like doubling the billions already in science funding, might have to wait until the economy’s on a better footing.

One pillar of the Lib Dem manifesto is healthy eating, particularly restricting the marketing of junk food to children. The sim can’t quite do that, but we can tax junk food to high heaven and run a healthy eating campaign, which happens to be another manifesto commitment.

Another aspect of that health policy is more controversial. A minimum unit price for alcohol can be represented by a simple raise in alcohol duty, but it really hits the poor in their pockets hard, undoing the good work of our child welfare improvements earlier. In comparison to alcohol, there isn’t a commitment to legalise cannabis  but there is to effectively decriminalise it, by diverting people caught with personal quantities into treatment or civil penalties. Unfortunately, there’s no way of representing that in the game.

The Lib Dems have a pretty positive international agenda  but they still pander to the immigration moral panic to show that they can play with the big boys. So, while we improve foreign relations at every turn, appointing an internationally-popular UN ambassador for example, we also have to improve border controls, so that only highly-skilled immigrants can get in. I also establish a trade council to give international trade a boost, and jack up our diplomatic service too. When an extradition dilemma pops up  do you want to send this terror suspect to somewhere he’ll be tortured and probably killed? – we keep him in the UK.

Sadly, after a year of surviving the global recession, in one bad quarter my carefully-curated surplus turns into a £30bn deficit. Ugh. At least the global slowdown seems to be slowing its dive, so this should only be temporary. Ish. As soon as it starts to recover, I’ll kick a stimulus package out there. In the meantime, I do a quick reshuffle because my ministers aren’t performing, to make sure I have enough influence to pass policies.

But what policies? The Lib Dems still have hundreds of them, and I don’t know what order to go at them in, or how to implement most of them. It’s starting to feel like the Lib Dems drew their inspiration for their piecemeal policies from this game, so closely do they fit. For example, they want to fundamentally shift prison to being about rehabilitation not punishment  which is, to me, a rational, philosophically coherent position that should be at the heart of governmental criminal policy and that I implement to the full  but it’s buried away between pettifogging commitments to Community Justice Panels, Youth Justice Boards and Women’s Justice Boards.

There’s just over a year left of this parliament, and 44 per cent of the electorate are onside. Apart from a few hundred whackjobs in the "Crusaders of the Lord" paramilitary cult, who seem determined to kill Clegg. The biggest problem, which is causing the other major problems like street gangs and vigilantes, is unemployment. The graphs are stark. Unemployment feeds all alcoholism, homelessness, organised crime, ghettos, street gangs, and vigilante mobs, all of which feed into each other. I’ve really hardly dented them.

Now there’s a £50bn gap in income versus expenditure. I need to find policies that boost the economy pronto as the global economy is carrying on going down six months longer than it did for Labour. What to do? Flood prevention research? Too pricey, not stimulating. Electric cars? I implement them, but Mr Tesla is hardly going to create many jobs in the UK.

Ah, simple things. I implement expensive small business grants and start a telecommuting initiative. I throw a lot of money into road building, train subsidies, and the like (all based on manifesto commitments), and whack up Capital Gains Tax (which I’d forgotten to do at the start). A huge spending stimulus that bumps up GDP over our last six months.

And we cruise to a safe election  partly because 33 per cent of the electorate didn’t turn up. If anything, that was easier than Labour’s victory because the Lib Dems had so many little tweaks that they wanted to do, most of which had a positive effect in the simulation, even though they had similar ringfences to the Tories.

The only people who didn’t end up liking them were capitalists, patriots, the wealthy, and the religious. I can’t really say that they had anything amounting to a coherent agenda except "do what’s cheap, effective and wins votes". Which I’m sure was Reagan’s slogan in ‘81. Maybe we should give that Clegg chap another chance..?

Read our methodology here. Follow 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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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game