A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A matter of policy...

Some quick thoughts about policy, populism and the election tomorrow....

Three years ago, my long suffering friend Danny 'Teegan' Murray and I embarked on a long, tedious poring-over of the election manifestos and platforms for all the major political parties. The result was the now defunct comparethepolicy.com ; one would simply click on a tab (economy, health, social issues etc) and hey presto, all the actual policy that parties had decreed was neatly tabled for ease of comparison. It was useful to some people at least, being reported in Metro and the Sunday Business post amongst others. It was quite a labour to sift through literally hundreds of pages of policy documents and there was zero financial reward for us, so why did we do it ? Because, primarily, we are scientists and believe that facts and not lazy perceptions should be easily available to help us decide what is the best call. As we are both politically non-partisan pragmatists, we wanted to cut through the spin and detail what the actual policies of different parties were, which we had noted was often at odds with what the public and our peers thought. And perhaps naively, we figured that we could help change the country for the better by going to this effort.

While for this local election, neither Teegan nor I had the time or inclination to sink hours of our life into a similar project to comparethepolicy.com , I'll use this blogpost to quickly share some thoughts on policy and realism in politics, and what we learnt. With any luck it will benefit all of you heading to the polls tomorrow.

  • For undecided voters and non-partisan pragmatics, comparethepolicy helped them make choices based on evidence.  Yet it was fairly clear that for many, the people or parties they vote are less about policy /evidence and more about gut feelings or pre-exisiting political ideology. This is precisely what we should strive to avoid - decisions made based on emotive reactions rarely lead to ideal outcomes. For example, it is very easy for a candidate to promise to change something. But unless that candidate clearly details how and why they intend to achieve this change, the promise is deeply suspect and should be treated as such. Of course politicians get away with it because despite our collective political cynicism, we're still not savvy enough to do a Paxman and ask the hard questions of "how" and "why". 
  •  Certain parties had very clear political manifestos, with clear aims and methods for achieving these aims. Others had loose ideas but no coherent way of achieving them, and others still had zero concrete policy. In 2011, of the Irish Political parties, Fine Gael's 5 point plan was the clearest, followed by Labour's manifesto with Fianna Fail's in a distant third. The Green party policies were aspirational and interesting but had no clear method for achieving them. Despite Teegan and I reaching out several times to Sinn Fein and ULA, we we unable to get a clear policy document for either, though the ULA did send us their press releases. We included what we could from these, but in terms of policy they left much to be desired. We asked Sinn Fein for clarification numerous times on their economic policies (especially their much touted default line) but received curt unclear answers each time.  
  • The PR system is a rather excellent way for ensuring that the country get the people they elect in office, but people still seem to misunderstand how a coalition works; the influence of a government partner is decided by their share of the popular vote. Yet despite this, we have a recurring national habit of kicking the junior coalition partners (PDs, Green, Labour) despite their influence being relatively low, regardless of the quality of the policy they got through. This does suggest that we may not make the most rational of decisions, either based on a misunderstanding of how PR works or an emotive ideological reaction.  
  • Many people let their political loyalty blind them, despite not being that familiar with the policies of the party with which they identified; we received several irate emails from people claiming we'd misrepresented their party, despite the fact we'd included the links (or in some cases, scans) to where these documents could be found. This meant people were poorly informed of the actual policies their favoured party had.

These were some lessons we learnt from compare the policy, but overall we learnt that people simple solutions to complex problems, despite these solutions rarely existing. Everything has some cost associated with it, or some consequence. We were, and continue to be, distrustful of those espousing simple narratives over complex things; when we asked certain parties campaigning under a "burn the bondholders" mantra what they meant by bondholders and how they would achieve this, the answers were muddled and economically confused to say the least. 

But despite all this, you might be able to identify some of these traits in the current upcoming election. I sadly cannot vote in the Irish elections tomorrow due to working in the UK, but if you're still undecided, the only real advice I can give you is to be critical and dubious of populism. For example, here's Paul Murphy's poster for election as MEP;

6 years presumably since the bank bailout, but this poster is gloriously confused...
 Paul Murphy is running for MEP, yet most of this promotional material refers to water tax. Even the SP have taken to prefacing themselves with "Stop the water tax". Fair enough, but this is utterly disingenuous; first off, the water charge is not a tax - it is a metered charge. The only reason for calling it a tax is to trigger an emotive reaction to the word tax. Secondly, even if it were, domestic issues are NOT the remit of an MEP - unless Paul Murphy thinks he could stop water charges in all of Europe which already pay them (which he couldn't) it's a non-issue, and utterly dishonest or misinformed. This is naked populism, and Mr Murphy isn't alone in this issue - many of the Dublin MEP posters I saw last week were running on domestic issues, indicating the candidates don't actually understand the role of MEP or assume their electorate is too stupid to call them on it.  My old DCU college mate Padraig O'Connor has asked the same question here.

Other populism is just an insidious and can have health consequences; I've written for the Guardian about the Fianna Fail (and to a lesser extent, Fine Gael) candidates pandering to fluoride panic and in more detail on this blog previously. As the ever insightful Colette Brown details, these moves are nothing more than posturing for a local election. I should be careful to not tar all politicians with the same brush; Labour councillors Padraig McLoughlin and Ronan McManus received reams of personal abuse for taking the position supported by scientific evidence and deserve kudos for that.

It will be interesting to see how this election pans out for Labour, and whether we will continue the trend of kicking the Junior partner; On a personal level I really like Pat Rabitte at times - he correctly points out that Labour's share is government is relatively small and thus their influence share small. People seem to forget this. FG have 81% of the sway, yet we'll likely blame the minority party as we always do. That's kind of depressing, as I think Labour's influence is government has been to moderate FG, and they got some very difficult legislation passed in the X-Case, which they have supported for years. With only about 1/5 of the public vote, this is impressive and deserves some respect. Yet if they get hammered, it'll likely just act to increase the voter share of right-wing parties (and a handful of independents with no clear policy) and then we'll moan again about how right-wing our government are, despite the fact we've caused that. Despite the economic improvement since 2011, I suspect this will occur. Perhaps we get exactly the government we deserve.

But I may have just become somewhat cynical since 2011, and less inclined to believe that facts matter to the electorate at large. I hope I'm wrong. In any case, no matter who you choose to vote for, try to get the information you need and be critical rather than cynical. And please, do not be afraid to ask "why" and "how" - if the candidate can't give a fair answer, then feel no shame about passing them over. 

Jeremy Paxman rebuked by BBC over his criticism of the corporation as he announces retirement from Newsnight
Think like Paxman. Avoid ghosts like Pac-Man.

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