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General Election 2017: Party attitudes to the big issues

All political soothsaying relies heavily on an understanding of context. When the political climate is changing rapidly (when isn't it?), it may feel like the rug is being pulled from under us, and, as onlookers, we can struggle to get a handle on the big issues that parties are discussing. This could be a particular problem when we are asked to make important decisions based on our understanding of political parties, and the differences between them. 

To tackle this problem head on, we take a look at the attitudes that are adopted by Labour, the Conservatives, Lib Dems, UKIP, the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru when they mention top election topics in their manifestos. We include topics that have been heavily debated in recent weeks - like tax, housing and the NHS - which, according to Google Trends, are the top electoral searches over the last 7 days. They are the themes that crop up repeatedly through our analysis of the manifestos, and will be explored further.

We find that attitudes towards public health - which subsumes topics like nursing, the NHS, and patients - have been mixed

It is worth bearing in mind that "attitude" describes the sentiment associated with words used alongside topics in a sentence, or body of text.

As you can imagine, in some cases a misleading attitude may emerge as a result of criticism related to a topic, or perhaps critique of another political party's past action on a big issue. Our analysis, using the Political Futures Tracker, does not attempt to summarise the party line on attitudes towards top topics, but instead, act as a gauge of the attitude presented on debates around these important themes.

Across the seven manifestos we see that business and enterprise and the UK economy are top themes. Most parties are highly positive about these topics, however, Plaid Cymru's manifesto is split 50:50, positive to negative sentiment on the UK economy.

The negativity expressed in the Plaid manifesto may rest on their use of language - suggestions that Wales faces "grave risks" at the general election, including claims that the nation is "under threat from the cruel and reckless Tories" will likely skew analysis of attitudes towards the negative.

The Green Party, like the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, have a broadly positive outlook right across their top manifesto themes

The parties differ on welfare, however - where the Conservatives take a partly negative view, while the Green Party are wholly positive on the topic. On welfare, the Greens have pledged to move towards a system of a "universal basic income", reinstating housing benefit for under-21s, and abolishing the "bedroom tax". 

Labour show possibly the most negativity in their manifesto attitudes towards top themes

In our analysis of 2010 and 2015 manifestos, we found that Labour were the most future thinking about the UK economy in 2010. In 2015, the Conservatives took the lead on future thinking.

Our interpretation of this trend was that incumbent governments have an incentive to focus on the future and refrain from discussing their recent past, while challengers tend to critique the recent term of the incumbent government. 

In this sense, it is not surprising that Labour's 2017 manifesto has a greater proportion of negative sentiment than the Conservatives, for example - much of this negativity may be channelled towards the incumbent government's activities.

 

The SNP's manifesto talks about Europe, Immigration and Scotland - the latter two are mentioned in exclusively positive ways, but the attitude towards Europe is somewhat negative, at 20 per cent.

While the SNP's manifesto rhetoric around Brexit is primarily one of protecting Scotland, negativity may creep in when language such as 'oppose' is used in the context of treating the fishing industry as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations. 

UKIP is broadly positive on issues like the UK economy, business and enterprise, and schools - like many of the other seven parties we have looked at.

Where UKIP differs is their attitude towards defence and armed forces, which is exclusively negative. This may be a condition of their language choice - terms like "repeal", and reverse", but may also reflect critical language used to describe the activity of the incumbent government, and other parties.

Other parties, like Labour, have more positive/ negative balance in their attitudes towards defence - policy-wise, Labour has pledged commitment to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, rolling out a "Homes for Heroes" programme that will insulate the homes of veterans for free, and ordering a strategic defence and security review.

One of the key criticisms of all political parties, and individual politicians, is that they are too focused on the short term. Many argue that the electoral cycle forces this short-termism - but, of course, for meaningful and effective investment in innovation, we feel that politicians need to look to the long-term.

In the past, it has been difficult to get a commensurable measure of future thinking across parties. That's why we developed a function in the Political Futures Tracker to address the issue of time. 

In the next blog in this series, we will look at the way parties talk about top topics in a future thinking way. Future thinking analysis automatically identifies words that are time sensitive, and 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 for all parties. 

Author

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.