General Election 2017: How future thinking are the manifestos?

The future isn't what it used to be...

Our future thinking analysis isn't as 'far-out' as it sounds ... but it is innovative - it gives an alternative view on how parties are discussing the big issues that will define campaigning, and ultimately, the way that people vote in a few days' time.

Using the Political Futures Tracker, we automatically identify words that are time sensitive. The tool then codes the extent to which a theme is being written about in a past, present or future context. This allows us to compare and contrast how future thinking political texts are, and provides comparable data across parties.

We use the number of times a theme is mentioned in a future context in the manifesto and look at this as a proportion of the number of words used in the manifesto - so we can compare like for like. Because, as we know from the first blog in this series, there is huge variation in the length of these political documents.

...Or is it?

Prime Minister, Theresa May’s recent speech at the launch of the Conservative’s Welsh manifesto made clear the importance of future thinking - this focus on the future aligns with the Conservative manifesto of 2015, which, according to the Political Futures Tracker, was the most forward looking of the big seven parties.

Just a few days ago, the PM extolled the value of planning for ‘…future prosperity, our standard of living, our place in the world, and the opportunities we want for our children – and our children's children...’ This emphasis on the future is consistent with analysis that we conducted in the run up to the 2015 General Election which suggests that…

Incumbent political parties tend to be radically more future thinking than their challengers

However, this time around, when we looked at a sub-set of topics, there was an outlier to our previous finding - UKIP's manifesto.

In the Future Thinking chart above, we notice that UKIP takes a highly forward looking approach to science and innovation.

Delving into this further, we see that their manifesto repeats their 2015 pledge requiring "every primary school to nominate a science leader to inspire and equip the next generation of scientists and engineers". The mention of "next generation", captured by the Political Futures Tracker, provides a proxy for thinking about the future.

However, as is the case with all of this analysis, UKIP's proclivity for future thinking may not be as clear-cut as it seems. We see that their manifesto also makes reference to tuition fees for STEM higher education courses, suggesting that they will "...abolish tuition fees for undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students, provided they work in their discipline and pay tax in the UK for at least five years after they complete their degree."

The future thinking credentials of this manifesto may therefore be overemphasised.

The Green Party manifesto is characterised by its forward looking stance on labour market issues – including employment, schools, young people, and the UK economy

This focus is reinforced by a number of the Green Party's manifesto policy commitments, including taking steps towards the introduction of a universal basic income, phasing in a four-day working week (max 35 hours), and abolishing zero hours contracts.

However, the Greens do not take such a future-thinking focus on some top topics that other parties like the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour have taken, for instance, when it comes to the coming decades of science and innovation.

The Conservatives are highly future thinking on further education and skills - a trend that is borne out through the many references they make in their manifesto to apprenticeships.

They tend to talk about apprenticeships as a mechanism for ensuring the UK's skill needs are met in the future - the commitment to create three million apprenticeships for young people by 2020 is an example of such a future looking policy.

The manifesto also ticks the future thinking box for a number of other top topics - including democracy, employment and the UK economy - making it the second most future thinking document, behind UKIP's, based on the five themes we use for the aggregate future thinking score.

The Lib Dems' have a long tail of future thinking themes - topped by a forward focus on consumer right and issues. This takes a number of different angles in their manifesto, from pledges to the better use of natural resources and moving the UK towards a 'circular economy', to granting new powers to local authorities to protect high streets and consumers by reducing the proliferation of betting shops.

On science and innovation, the Lib Dem manifesto takes a high level stance - invest in the future – under which specific pledges are made with a view to supporting the development innovative technologies, workers and the UK economy.

As well as Wales, which is seldom far from Plaid's top topics, their manifesto mentions defence and transport in a future thinking light. This contrasts with Plaid Cymru's 2015 manifesto, where the top future-inclined themes were the UK economy and environment.

This may be a product of revised policy thinking - in their 2017 policy document, Plaid make a number of policy commitments on defence, where for instance they oppose military action without UN and Parliamentary authority, and plan to scrap the Trident nuclear weapons system and resist any attempts to relocate it to Wales.

But, this finding could be another red-herring (of course, there is always a caveat) ... we know that Plaid's manifesto strap-line is 'Defending Wales', as such it is prevalent throughout the manifesto, and may therefore be associated with future thinking rhetoric as a biproduct of its frequency - thereby skewing how we interpret their attitude to defence and armed forces.

On transport, Plaid manifesto policy is fronted by commitment to develop a Wales-wide transport network. A number of place specific projects are then explored, such as the re-opening of the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth railway, and improvement of North-Wales' A55.

While the Labour Party have no stand-out future thinking themes, they are consistently forward looking when it comes to local government, arts and culture and Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, their manifesto is less foward looking than UKIP's, the Conservatives', and the Lib Dems'.

Labour's forward looking stance on arts and culture will come as no surprise to many who have come across their culture manifesto entitled 'A Creative Future for All'.

Among other, specific commitments, Labour pledge to put the UK's world-class creative sector at the heart of Brexit negotiations and future industrial strategy.

As discussed, UKIP take a highly forward looking position in their manifesto when mentioning science and innovation. Equally, they are particularly forward looking in commitments made on higher education, the UK's nations and regions, and immigration, which we know was an important part of UKIP's 2015 manifesto and campaigning.

Last, but not least, the SNP take a future focused position in relation to Financial Services, Science and Innovation, and Planning and Building. In the case of Financial Services, the SNP's manifesto commitments flesh out the data below. Particularly, this is illustrated by their high level commitment to reform the banking sector - including pledges to support a comprehensive investigation into LIBOR rigging, and the creation of a robust regulatory framework to ensure that the UK economy is not vulnerable to a re-run of the 2008 financial crisis.

We will be following up on this triplet of blogs analysing the 2017 manifestos with a deep-dive series of articles that look at changes across campaigns from 2010 to 2017, how the political climate has changed, and what factors have influenced party engagement with the big issues that have defined each General Election. Stay tuned for more attitude tracking, mythbusting and cross-party analysis...

In the meantime, for more information on our analysis of the 2017 manifestos, or on the Political Futures Tracker tool please get in touch below.


George Windsor

George Windsor

George Windsor

Senior Policy Researcher

George was a Senior Policy Researcher in the Creative and Digital Economy team.

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Dr Mark A Greenwood

Dr Greenwood is a Research Associate in the Natural Language Processing Group at the University of Sheffield.

Dr Diana Maynard

Dr Diana Maynard is a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, and holds a PhD in Automatic Term Recognition.