Independent costing of election programmes: lessons from the Netherlands

In May 2017, the Constitution Unit began a project seeking to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. The independent assessment of parties’ policy proposals could be one way of providing the public with high-quality, reliable information. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and reports some initial findings from a research trip to the Netherlands, where such assessment of election programmes is a well-established feature of campaigns.

The Constitution Unit, with funding from the McDougall Trust, is seeking to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. As outlined in a previous post, we are looking at three potential approaches: directly banning false or misleading statements; promoting the availability of impartial and high-quality information; and fostering citizen deliberation. My research is currently focused on the second type. In this blog post I first outline the state of the debate on one strand of this approach – independent impact analysis of manifesto proposals – in the UK and summarise existing practice overseas. I then relate early thoughts from a research trip to the Netherlands, where an independent institute assesses the economic and financial effects of parties’ election programmes.

Manifesto budgeting in the UK

The independent assessment of electoral programmes is not a novel idea in the UK. Since 2013, the Labour Party has advocated extending the remit of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to include pre-election costing of opposition parties’ policy proposals. Labour argues this would benefit public debate by ensuring that voters were properly informed and restore public trust in politics by improving policy transparency. Some Conservatives – notably, Andrew Tyrie, the former chairman of the Treasury Select Committee – have endorsed this idea. The government, however, has rejected calls for an extension of the OBR’s remit on the grounds that that the Civil Service Code prevents it from examining opposition parties’ policies and that it should abide by the principle of political impartiality. Furthermore, Conservative MPs have argued that it is necessary to protect the credibility and independence of this relatively new institution, and that drawing the OBR into the highly politicised environment of an election would be unwise.

In evidence provided to the Treasury Select Committee in 2014, the OBR’s chair, Robert Chote,  indicated support for extending its role. In a letter to Andrew Tyrie, he said that ‘independent scrutiny of pre-election policy proposals could contribute to better policy making, to a more informed public debate, and could help facilitate coalition formation when party programmes need to be reconciled’. However, he also highlighted some issues that would need to be resolved, such as the establishment of ‘clear rules’ for parties, the availability of adequate resources, and the need for cross-party support for the change.

Both external and Treasury reviews of the OBR cautioned against expanding its role, arguing that currently the risks in terms of resources and independence could outweigh the benefits. These judgements, combined with the pressing matters surrounding Brexit, seem to have put the debate to rest for now.

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After the general election: what’s next?

Just two days after the general election, Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit spoke at UCL’s It’s All Academic festival about the constitutional and political fallout. Michela Palese summarises what they said.

Theresa May called for a snap election on 18 April in order to increase the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons and give herself a strong personal mandate for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. The election took place on Thursday 8 June, and its results caught both the Prime Minister and the general public by surprise. No party secured an overall majority of seats and the United Kingdom has its second hung parliament in less than a decade. The Conservatives are left relying on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a government.

On the morning of Saturday 10 June the Constitution Unit hosted an event at UCL’s ‘It’s All Academic’ Festival. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the Unit’s Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick provided some initial analysis of the results and explored some of the likely challenges facing the new government.

The Unit’s Alan Renwick (left), Meg Russell (centre) and Jennifer Hudson (right)

Candidates and campaign

Jennifer Hudson analysed the election from the point of view of campaigning and the composition and diversity of the new parliament.

She argued that, contrary to the Prime Minister’s expectations, it was hard to make the case that the election was about Brexit. In fact, according to a survey that she had conducted in early May, most people did not seem to have strong feelings towards the Brexit negotiations or leaving the European Union without an agreement.

Figure 1: Feelings of the British electorate on Brexit

As shown in the diagram, around 25 per cent of respondents felt either depressed or angry about the negotiations and the prospect of exiting the EU without a deal, but the general feeling on the topic was of relative indifference. This may reflect a shift in the debate on Brexit, with a majority of ‘remainers’ accepting the result and wishing for negotiations to proceed, and only around 20 per cent continuing to claim that the UK should remain in the EU and that there should be a second referendum.

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How can we improve discourse during elections and referendums?

The Constitution Unit has recently launched a year-long project, which seeks to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In this blog post, Alan Renwick and Michela Palese set out the motivations and plan for their project, along with some initial findings.

Following the 2016 EU referendum campaign, concerns over the quality of political discourse have been raised by people of all political persuasions. For example, the Electoral Commission’s report on the EU referendum found that only 34 per cent of respondents agreed that the campaign had been conducted in a fair and balanced way, with 52 per cent disagreeing and 34 per cent disagreeing strongly. The most common reasons given were that the campaign had been ‘one-sided/unbalanced/biased/partial’ and that the information provided was ‘inaccurate and misleading’. Similarly, the House of Commons Treasury Committee reported that ‘The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’. Efforts to tackle the spread of misleading statements and so-called ‘fake news’ have recently been increasing in the run-up to the UK general election on 8 June.

Despite such widespread concerns over the prevalence of misinformation and the need for fair and balanced debate, little research has been conducted on the quality, as opposed to the quantity, of electoral participation and deliberation. Our project, which is generously funded by the McDougall Trust, aims to fill this gap by examining measures for improving the quality of public discussion during election and referendum campaigns. If appropriate, we will conclude by making reform proposals for the UK.

We have begun our work by surveying existing practice across a wide range of democracies, which will allow us to identify areas and options deserving of more detailed investigation. Through this preparatory research, we have tentatively identified three sets of options:

1/ Interventions designed to prevent misinformation by directly banning campaigners from making false or misleading statements. 

So far as we are aware, the most developed application of this approach is in South Australia, where the Electoral Act of 1985 states that ‘A person who authorises, causes or permits the publication of an electoral advertisement … is guilty of an offence if the advertisement contains a statement purporting to be a statement of fact that is inaccurate and misleading to a material extent’. Similar measures can also be found in New Zealand and some US states, such as Oregon. This option gained some traction in the UK after the EU referendum. Last July, for example, 50 MPs signed an early day motion calling for the establishment of an ‘Office of Electoral Integrity (OEI) to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns, with powers to issue clarifications and fines where appropriate’.

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