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31 May 2017

Simulection: we ran the Tory 2017 manifesto through a video game . . . and the results were terrifying

We return to our series on simulated governance with a look at how Theresa May's policies would actually perform.

By Daniel Griliopoulos

It’s a sad state of affairs that no one expects the parties actually to do everything they promise. But what would happen if our newly elected leader actually carried out their entire manifesto? What would the country look like? That’s what our “simulection” series tries to show.

As with the 2010 and 2015 elections, we’re not going to simulate the election process. That’s for braver souls than us, souls who use reams of historical data and complex mathematical technology, and spend weeks sweating over statistical anomalies, only to be horribly surprised like the rest of us when a costume monkey gets elected. Our simulation is mainly for fun, though it does at least test whether a policy can be implemented at all.

The software we use is a game called Democracy 3 and it simulates one thing: the multitudinous effect of your policies when in government. It does that through a visually complex interface reflecting an underlying neural network, which models the effects of a change in every single variable on every other. It doesn’t model the electoral system, it doesn’t allow for coalitions, and it doesn’t have any obvious biases. (You can read more about the game, how we implement policies and our own biases here.)

This time around, we’ve disabled the possibility of a global economic collapse because a) as we saw in our 2015 simulation, no party’s policies can survive that and b) we have a much bigger problem on the horizon. Halfway through our simulation, no matter which manifesto we’re simulating, we’re going to have to deal with Brexit.

Getting started on the Conservative Manifesto . . .

When we simulate a party’s policies, there’s a certain amount of interpretation necessary, which means we have to judge how the party leaders might behave. Theresa May’s maxim is “strong and stable”; which, like her previous mantra “Brexit means Brexit”, is pretty devoid of meaning. That makes it a perfect Conservative maxim, because it reflects their underlying pragmatism (what some might call a lack of principle).

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In game terms, that gives the Tories a huge advantage. Being ideologically flexible means you’re freeer to adapt to the variables of a situation – whether that’s playing a game or running a $2.6trn economy.

May doubles down on this by having very few costed pledges in her manifesto and no apparent timeline for implementing them. That means she can cut spending in the early years and raise it later, toreduce the deficit  temporarily then splurge before an election. Or after a disastrous exit from the world’s biggest trade partnership . . .

So we quickly implement the Conservative flagship policies. We slightly raise the NHS budget, though £8bn by 2020 is a drop in the ocean compared to the roughly £130bn we already spend. The biggest of the various changes to care for the elderly – the scrapping of the triple lock – won’t even start until 2020, so we can mostly ignore that. I generally represent this and the increased focus on means-testing pensions by dropping the funding for state pensions. Again, the promise to put an extra $4bn into schools (into a budget of roughly £85bn) doesn’t have to be carried out until 2022, which means we can completely ignore it for this parliament.

While I’m implementing all these policies (which takes time in the game, to represent the slow grind of parliamentary democracy), a couple of hot-topic questions come up. I decide to strengthen stop-and-search powers and limit debt collection agency activity, which is becoming a menace to the poorest – both in line with May’s rhetoric. A major donor abandons the party, which is worrying for the next election.

More terrifying, the trade unions call a general strike, presumably because one of my policies has just bumped poverty over a threshold. That’s going to cause a big hit to GDP, my core constituency, and to my attempt to maintain the “strong and stable image. Balancing that, our credit rating just got upgraded, which should provide a longer-term boost to GDP.

Finally, I get a chance to look at immigration. The Tories have pledged to cut it to below 100,000 a year, from about 250,000 a year currently. I implement stronger border controls for now, but I’ll have to wait until Brexit in 2019 to really cut it hard.

Meanwhile, I’m still running a deficit, so I need to focus on tax. Sadly, most of these pledges go the opposite way – the Tories have abandoned their focus on reduced borrowing and plan to spend more on infrastructure and research and development, as well as reducing income tax and corporation tax. While I’m implementing that, the global economy falls into recession, which further restricts my spending power, bumping the deficit back up and leading to our credit rating dropping again.

We’re 39 months from the next election now. I drop two ornery cabinet members, which unsettles the rest of them – I’ll need to do a reshuffle soon. Someone suggests passing a new Freedom of Information bill, which Mrs May has a good giggle over. Instead, we raise the National Living Wage – which I represent by offering food stamps – and bulk up our citizenship tests for immigrants.  

The economy is struggling badly and it’s approaching Brexit time. Our credit rating is downgraded again, and we’re warned about serious security threats. Thankfully, a British company wins a major Aerospace contract, which should help our economy survive until the election. However, we are super-unpopular as a party right now.

. . . and then along comes Brexit

So, it’s 2019 and Brexit is here. In these simulations, I’m going to follow most economists and assume that the Tory version is going to mean an exit from the single market, loss of freedom of movement and a big kick in the teeth for the banking sector. I’ll represent it by raising our import tariffs to the highest level possible, making our border controls horribly tight, and banning high-frequency trading. If the country can survive this, it can survive anything.

Immediately, the secretive Battenberg Group of extremist capitalists hires an assassin to take Theresa May out. The police stumble across him setting up his sniper rifle outside the opening ceremony for a new grammar school. That doesn’t save May from being berated at the school by the head – apparently there’s a shortage of teachers. The extra money we pumped into schools simply wasn’t enough to counter an utter sense of depression amongst the educated, apparently.

Credit: Positech Games

Meanwhile, looking at our national debt, I can see why the Battenburg Group are so upset. The general strike and Brexit are causing a debt crisis, which is affecting everyone’s borrowing rates – and particularly overseas investments. Given the Tories’ lack of commitment to any major police reforms, I can’t really justify bumping up police funding to protect May against more assassination attempts.

There are other policies I just haven’t had the political capital to implement; focusing on zero-emission cars, building houses, halving rough sleeping, “delivering” a million new homes, increasing defence spending . . . would a Tory government carry on with these pledges or quietly abandon them in an attempt to survive? Would May?

Whatever May would attempt to do, it’s probably too late. I took my eye off the fiscal ball while Brexit was happening and the country is looking pretty damn doomed. I reshuffle the cabinet to ensure I’ll have enough political capital to try to fix this. I also hire a PR department and start performing media stunts galore, including a visit to an orphanage and inviting cameras inside No 10. It certainly improves the public’s view of my trustworthiness and compassion, but the “strength” tricks the PR department suggests just don’t work very well with May – I can’t see her parachuting on to an aircraft carrier or driving a tank.

I quickly implement some dirty tax-shelter laws, to get those maddened capitalists back onside. Their paramilitary group stops growing, though it’s still huge and well armed. There’s a media backlash against this immediately, so everyone hates me even more. I bump up state housing and military spending, because frankly I have no idea how to control this debt crisis. We’re spending 50 per cent more than we’re taking in tax. My only hope, I can see, is to bump up science funding in the hope of improving our technology rating, which will end the “technology backwater” and “skills shortage” crises and help our GDP recover.

It seems to be working – our “uncompetitive economy” status disappears and we develop a “technological advantage”, which is eliminating our reputation as a technological backwater. Meanwhile I deport a load of smuggled-in immigrants in the hope of keeping my countrymen onside, as well as an unfortunate victim of torture. Despite that, another assassination attempt from a sniper is foiled; those capitalists really hate May. As does a new faction, the Revolutionary Army, which also starts plotting to kick me out. And so does the country – the polls have us on 5 per cent of the electorate.

Election time 

With 12 months to go until the election, I do what any good PM does – spend, spend, spend, never mind the huge deficit. I also get out into the country and make speech after speech after speech, trying to woo every last socialist and conservative at once (without, of course, getting involved in debates or actually talking to the public). Somehow I achieve an “economic stability” achievement – I suspect not because I’ve fixed the country, but because my ludicrous pledges have destroyed the economy so thoroughly that it’s been ticking along at rock bottom for a whole year. Maybe not strong, but that’s definitely stable.

Credit: Positech Games

Six months later it’s even worse. The deficit is about equal to the country’s income and I’m paying twice in debt interest what I am for the NHS. Understandably, my minister for industry desperately wants to quit and I want to fire him before he does – but he’s the best campaigner in the cabinet, and I can’t lose him this close to the election. I pump a load of populist, hot-air policy announcements – an Armed Forces Week, some stringent fuel efficiency standards – and it works, to a degree. If you ignore the debt crisis, May is a well-loved leader. It’s just that, with the debt crisis, the country is flat on its back.

It’s the last month before the election, which is a chance to make some pledges. May promises to do all the things she failed to do last time – cut homelessness, build more state housing, cut poverty. It’s not enough, though – come the election, more people abstain than vote Conservative and she manages to get a paltry 6 per cent of the vote, compared to the opposition’s 84 per cent. She retires to well-deserved obscurity.

Why did she fail? “Events, dear boy, events.” She couldn’t shake off the general strike, which pushed GDP down, which in turn pushed up unemployment, and high unemployment just destroys everything – I didn’t go into the detail, but there were armed gangs on the streets, horrible alcoholism everywhere, and poverty galore. Brexit was just the nail in the coffin which meant I couldn’t recover at all.

Next time, we’ll look at the Labour Party – how will its policy promises fit with Brexit? How will Corbyn run a country? Will I find a secret manifesto pledge to abolish the monarchy? All will be revealed.

Dan Griliopoulos has written about culture and video games for over 15 years. His book Ten Things Video Games Can Teach You: About Life, Philosophy and Everything is out in August. He blogs at Funambulism and tweets at @griddleoctopus.


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