By Patrick Hanks and Sara Može
Research Institute of Information and Language Processing
University of Wolverhampton
No doubt every politically conscious person in Britain has a pretty good idea by now of the main issues selected by the various political parties fighting each other for votes in the upcoming General Election. An obvious way of finding out what those issues are is to read the manifestos of each of the parties.
But linguistic analysis can tell us more than the politicians ever intended to reveal. Linguists working on the DVC project at the University of Wolverhampton have been using corpus-analysis tools such as Adam Kilgarriff’s Sketch Engine to explore the language used in the manifestos of four parties: Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens. At 52,272 words, the Green manifesto is by far the longest, while the Labour manifesto is less than half as long (21,265 words). The Tory manifesto comes in at 34,559 words and the LibDems at 39,243.
One of the findings of this exercise is that the Tory manifesto uses the personal pronouns ‘you’ and ‘we’ more often than Labour, LibDems, or Greens. In the manifesto, the Tories like to address voters directly, talking about “you” and “yours”. Moreover, it is not always clear whether the Tory use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ refers to the Tory Party or society in general. This confusion may be accidental or deliberate, but either way the equation of the Tories with the British people is an effective rhetorical device.
By contrast, the Greens tend to talk more about things happening to ‘us’ or being done to ‘us’. “For 40 years the rich and powerful have forced us to live in their fantasy world.” The Labour Party tends to refer to itself as ‘Labour’ instead of (or, rather, as well as) ‘we’ and ‘us’.
There is, of course, a danger of overinterpreting such evidence. Nevertheless, it seems justifiable to conclude from this stylistic difference that Tories want to be seen as local and friendly, an integral part of the community, to be identified with all of Britain, while Labour would rather be considered intellectually respectable.
Nothing interesting can be concluded from the LibDem use of personal pronouns. They use English normally.
TABLE 1a: Parties and Pronouns: raw frequencies
TABLE 1b: Parties and Pronouns: per 10,000 words
Another striking stylistic feature of the manifestos is the tentative approach that is discernible in the Green manifesto, which often promises what they “will” do, but occasionally lapses and talks about what they “would” do (if they could). Evidently, the Greens don’t expect to win. That, of course, may be no more than a welcome dose of realism. The other parties make bold (perhaps hubristic) claims about what they “will” do after the election. The Tories in particular use a style that exudes confidence that “we” will win the election, so (for example) their manifesto very rarely uses the speculative modal verb ‘would’, with its connotations of impossibility and counterfactual hopes. Otherwise, the Tories use “would” to refer negatively to what they imply other parties “would” do, e.g. ”Tax rises on working people would harm our economy.”
We would also include protecting ecosystems in our aid for developing countries.
We would introduce a Citizen’s Pension, paid to all pensioners regardless of contribution record from 2016 , so no pensioner will live in poverty.
We would therefore place more emphasis on prevention and on primary and community care and less on hospital.
TO SECURE YOUR FIRST JOB we will create 3 million new apprenticeships […]
We will eliminate the deficit in a sensible and balanced way that will enable us to continue to increase spending on the NHS and cut Income Tax for 30 million working people.
We will find £12 billion from welfare savings, on top of the £21 billion of savings delivered in this Parliament.
Table 2: Comparison of Green and Conservative use of ‘would’ and ‘will’
Predictably, the Green manifesto starts, not with a political issue, but with a disquisition on planet Earth. The theme within which the Party’s political agenda is set is the need to “protect the planet, its land and its oceans, and the plants, animals and people that live on it.”
The LibDems, too, promise to “fight climate change”, but that is by no means top of their agenda. Instead, their manifesto starts by insisting on a balanced budget and discussing how this is to be achieved through taxation and other measures. They then present their proposals on health and education before getting around to proposing “five green laws” to help protect the planet.
The researchers next looked at some of the major issues in the manifestos, and compared the ways in which the different parties approach them, paying particular attention to the phraseology.
Health Care and the NHS
The National Health Service is an emotive issue in Britain, and saying the right thing about it seems to be regarded as a vote winner.
People who follow the news in Britain will be aware that there have been many stories in the media in recent years about crises and scandals in the NHS, including for example recurrent use of terms such as underfunding, Mid-Stafford, failures of management, and bed-blocking (which is attributed in large part to the steady reduction, year after year by successive governments, of funding for district nurses, home-visiting midwives, and other community care workers). The parties who, in coalition, have been in power for the past five years, are (not surprisingly) reluctant to acknowledge this, though the Tory manifesto does say, “We will implement the recommendations of the independent review into the Stafford Hospital scandal”.
The Tory manifesto asserts that the NHS “has become the best health-care system of any major country”, “is more efficient now than it has ever been”, and “is performing well in the face of increasing demand.” These assertions are, to say the least, questionable. A computer-aided search through this manifesto for the terms ‘health’ and ‘NHS’ reveals several similar platitudes and questionable claims, plus a characteristic little outburst of rabble-rousing xenophobia in the fourth quotation below:
- We will make sure that if you or your family fall ill, you will always be able to depend on our cherished National Health Service to give you the care you need.
- The NHS is vitally important to all of us. Founded on the principle that no one should ever have to worry about their ability to pay for their healthcare, it is a profound expression of our values as a nation.
- We have given greater power and accountability to the frontline than any other government. We cleared out bureaucracy, generating savings which we have invested in care for patients.
- We are taking unprecedented action to tackle health tourism and will recover up to £500 million from migrants who use the NHS.
The LibDems start this component of their manifesto by being equally platitudinous. According to them, our NHS is “the envy of the world” (a claim which provoked a guffaw from some visiting Germans). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that our NHS is the envy of the Third World. After a few more platitudes, the LibDems offer a raft of practical promises, including the following:
- Our NHS will have the money it needs, and the Scottish Parliament will have the resources to make sure mental health will have equal status with physical health. Those facing anxiety and depression will be seen swiftly, people struggling not to harm themselves will find emergency help at A&E and teenagers suffering from eating disorders will get the help they need close to home.
Labour’s main contribution to the war of manifesto platitudes is this:
- The NHS is one of our great national institutions, and it is one of Labour’s proudest achievements.
This harks back nostalgically almost seventy years, to the days when Aneurin Bevan established the NHS in the first post-war Labour government. It is hardly relevant today, when private companies as well as practitioners aim to make profits out of health care, as the Labour manifesto acknowledges. And accepts. No one any longer believes in the possibility of a free health service. We are a far cry from the idealism of Bevan and Labour in the 1940s.
In terms of content, the Labour manifesto recognizes that ‘the NHS is struggling with staffing shortages’ and ‘is under threat’, though of course it does not acknowledge responsibility for any failings under the Labour governments of 1997-2010. The Labour Party now promises to ‘rescue our NHS’. (First, of course, it must get elected.)
The Green Party, having no shameful track record to defend (or cover up), can afford to be even more openly and savagely critical of the way the NHS has been and is being handled: it “has been subjected to 20 years of ideological tampering by successive governments” and “is being handed over to the private sector.” More generally, “Many … working lives were totally disrupted by Margaret Thatcher’s assault on manufacturing industry in the 1980s. … Older people bear the scars of industrial diseases and health inequalities.”
Comparatively little is said about education in the manifestos and (with one exception) little that is said is distinctive. It is all very bland. The one exception is that exactly half of the mentions of ‘tuition fees’ (6/12) are in the Green manifesto. The Greens have cheekily taken up the LibDems’ broken promise from the last election. If there were a Green government, they would abolish tuition fees.
Labour makes the somewhat pusillanimous promise that they would “cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000” (surely not a promise that will be a huge vote winner?). The LibDems hide their heads in shame with a couple of weak and vague comments (e.g. “Only high-earning graduates pay their tuition”); while the Tories say nothing except to claim, quite truthfully, that “Our reforms to university funding mean you do not have to pay anything towards tuition while studying, and only start paying back if you earn over £21,000 per year.”
Europe and Immigration
By contrast, it is obvious from the manifestos that Europe is a divisive issue. All the parties focus on migration from the EU, rather than from Africa, America, or Asia. Presumably, they take the view the immigration from elsewhere is now under control and no party seems eager to re-open the floodgates.
Tories use strong language with regard to their efforts to limit benefits to migrants from within the EU (e.g. “we banned housing benefit for EU jobseekers”). They openly criticize the EU (“bureaucratic and too undemocratic”), and emphasize the UK’s superiority over the EU with regard to employment (‘We are creating more jobs than other EU countries’). Their manifesto gives the impression that they are interested in collaborating with other EU countries only in order to limit immigration to Britain and to introduce strict laws that will “have to be” respected by other EU member states. Nevertheless, even the Tory manifesto acknowledges that “we benefit from the Single Market” and goes on to say, that we “do not want to stand in the way of the Eurozone resolving its difficulties.” Is this latter comment a lightly disguised way of saying, “We will not contribute good British pounds to helping the Eurozone resolving its difficulties”? Is there any political party that seriously proposes to “stand in the way of the Eurozone resolving its difficulties”? Surely, not even UKIP would do that.
All the other parties are more or less pro-European. The Green Party is particularly enthusiastic: “much EU action has been progressive” and supports collaboration on most EU policies, e.g. “the right of young people all over Europe to go to other parts of the EU to work and broaden their experience”. The Greens would “promote policies in the EU that improve opportunities”; they respect “mutual legal obligations within the EU on freedom of movement” and would “comply with EU limits”, rather than seek to impose special ones for the UK). They add that “It is wrong to scapegoat immigrants for problems with housing, education, health [etc.]”). Their general attitude to the EU is summed up as follows: “So it’s yes to Europe, yes to reform of the EU, but also yes to a referendum” — a clear contrast with the Tories’ “No … no … no” (see the citations on ‘Brussels’ below).
Labour is also pro-EU (“the economic case for membership of the EU is overwhelming”). Their manifesto emphasizes Labour’s past and future role in improving the EU and stabilizing its economy (“Labour will advocate an EU which looks outward to promote stability” ; it will also “ensure EU rules protect non-Euro members”). It remains to be seen whether this particular statement is anything more than empty verbiage, aimed at vote-catching. Is it really within the power of the Labour Party, even if elected to government, to do anything that will promote European stability?
The LibDem manifesto talks about the EU extensively. Their attitude towards it is also generally positive; they are keen on collaborating (they “support EU standards/proposals”; they will “work (closely) at EU level/with EU partners/with the EU” and “develop an EU energy strategy”. LibDems have “allies in the EU” and take the view that “continued membership of the EU is essential … more crucial than ever”). Statements on Europe by the LibDems typically have positive connotations. But they are careful to retain the right to be critical, emphasizing the need for challenging and improving legislation: they see themselves as “scrutinising EU decision-making”. They propose to “lengthen transitional control for new EU members”; they will “push for more effective EU measures”, while “abolishing unnecessary EU institutions”. They would like to “increase the accountability of the EU” (a point with which even the most ardent British Europhile would agree). The LibDems evidently agree with the Tories that there is a need for “tightening benefit rules for EU migrants”. The bottom line is that the LibDems, like other parties, see themselves as ‘partners’ and ‘allies’ in Europe, whereas the Tories, like UKIP, see Europe as a threat that must be neutralized. Any change proposed by the LibDems would be for both the UK and the EU’s benefit.
The word ‘Brussels’ appears much more often in the Tory manifesto, where it usually has negative connotations, as in the following examples:
|[We will] reclaim power from||Brussels||on your behalf and safeguard British interests in the Single Market|
|Labour failed to give you a choice on the EU . They handed over major new powers to||Brussels||without your consent , and gave away £7 billion of the British rebate .|
|the first ever return of powers from||Brussels||. Our Prime Minister vetoed a new EU treaty that would have damaged Britain’s interests .|
|No to ‘ever closer union.’ No to a constant flow of power to||Brussels.||No to unnecessary interference . And no , of course , to the Euro|
|We will reclaim powers from||Brussels.||We want to see powers flowing away from Brussels, not to it.|
Table 3: ‘Brussels’ in the Tory Manifesto
The tone adopted by the Tory manifesto is emotionally charged throughout (as in the Thatcheresque repetition of ‘no’ three times in example 4) and personal – addressing the reader directly (‘on your behalf’, ‘without your consent’) . The phraseology also emphasizes the difference between the Tories’ proposals and the previous Labour regime (“they handed over major new powers” vs. “We will reclaim powers” – again, a proactive stance).
There is only one mention of ‘Brussels’ elsewhere in the manifestos:
- Labour will : … return Britain to a leadership role in Europe, but reform the EU so that it works for Britain
- guarantee no powers will be transferred to Brussels without an in/out referendum .
The LibDems and Greens do not mention Brussels explicitly.
“Controlled immigration” is a subheading in the Tory manifesto. The language used about it is almost entirely negative. For the Tories, immigration seems to be something threatening that must be controlled and reduced. In their manifesto, the language used to discuss immigration includes the following points:
- verbs governing the noun immigration include ‘control’, ‘cut’, and ‘check’.
- Other phrases used are ‘enforcing immigration rules’ and ‘strengthening the enforcement of immigration rules’.
- Immigration is ‘out of control’
- UK communities are ‘experiencing high and unexpected volumes of immigration’ and need to be ‘helped’.
- The modal verb ‘must’ is often used, typically in combination with the verb ‘control’ .
The Tory manifesto addresses the target audience directly on this issue, saying:
- Our plan to control immigration will put you, your family and the British people first.
However, in one place, the Tory manifesto also acknowledges that in some cases “Immigration brings real benefits to Britain.” This seems to be a reluctant concession; it runs counter to the general tone of the manifesto on immigration. Thus, the Tory message on immigration is mixed but mainly negative, generally playing on voters’ fears of outsiders.
In the other three manifestos, the tone is more measured, expressing a more neutral attitude. For example, Labour says, “some controls on immigration will be needed” and talks about “reasonable levels of immigration”. All parties other than the Tories undertake to “enforce immigration rules humanely and effectively” and “control immigration humanely/with fair rules”. The Greens, too, say that they would “control immigration fairly”.
All four manifestos discuss crime prevention, but the LibDems seem to be the most concerned about this issue – they have a lot to say about ‘fear’ of crime and ‘victims of crime’. They also discuss different types of crime (international, economic, environmental, hate, international, cyber, etc.). The Green party is particularly concerned about hate crimes and racist crimes; it also has quite a lot to say about crime in conjunction with drug use. Labour seems to have nothing very original or distinctive to say about crime and crime prevention.
Anyone who believes that the Conservatives are xenophobic and anti-European will find their views confirmed by the use of the word ‘criminals’ in the Tory manifesto. Three of the parties use this word only once, but the Tories use it seven times, and three of these uses are in relations to the Party’s plans for ‘deporting foreign criminals’. No doubt this is partly due to the party’s desire to reassure and cling on to Tory Europhobes who are tempted to defect to UKIP, but it is not clear that this Tory emphasis on ‘foreign criminals’ is supported by any objective statistics on crime in the UK.
|We will negotiate with the EU to introduce stronger powers to deport||criminals||and stop them coming back, and tougher and longer re-entry bans for all those who abuse free movement.|
|We will toughen sentencing and reform the prison system, so dangerous||criminals||are kept off your streets|
|We will scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign||criminals||can be more easily deported from Britain.|
|We need to complete our revolution in the way we manage offenders in the community, using the latest technology to keep||criminals||on the straight and narrow.|
|We will allow police forces to retain a greater percentage of the value of assets they seize from||criminals.|
|A new semi-custodial sentence will be introduced for prolific||criminals,||allowing for a short , sharp spell in custody to change behaviour.|
|Among other things the Bill will stop terrorists and other serious foreign||criminals||who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.|
Table 4: Uses of the word ‘criminals’ in the Tory manifesto
All the manifestos have a lot to say about tax, evidently in order to explain how they will pay for the expenditure committed or implied in other parts of the manifestos. All the parties promise to crack down on tax evasion and variously defined kinds of tax avoidance. ‘Aggressive tax avoidance’ is a Tory concept with negative connotations. A terminological point may be worth spelling out here: tax avoidance is perfectly legal, whereas tax evasion denotes doing something illegal to avoid paying tax.
The most innovative points revealed by linguistic analysis of the manifestos’ tax proposals are in the Green manifesto. These include, among other things, proposals for a ‘Robin Hood tax’, taking money from the rich in various ways and giving it to the poor, and a ‘flight tax’ on long-distance travellers. The LibDems would introduce a ‘wealth tax’, which seems somewhat similar to the Greens’ ‘Robin Hood tax’.
The Tories, by contrast, promise various tax credits and tax cuts of a familiar kind. There is nothing new in this.
Chasing the gay vote
All the parties are equally committed to gay rights. Labour uses the politically correct terms “LGBT” (an acronym for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’), which is also used intermittently by the LibDems. The Tories boast of their “historic introduction of gay marriage”.
WHAT THEY DON’T SAY…
Politicians are masters of the art of covering all the bases, so it is not surprising that there is considerable overlap among all the manifestos with regard to the issues covered. Each manifesto has something to say about most of the issues discussed in the other manifestos, although in some cases the comments may be little more than platitudes. Perhaps the most noticeable failure to speak out is the Tory manifesto’s failure to promise anything on the subject of racial discrimination. The Tory manifesto says (in three different ways), “We want to see full, genuine gender equality” and it promises to “stand up for the freedom of people of all religions (and non-religious people)” and aims to “halve the disability employment gap” but it seems to have nothing new to offer people facing discrimination on grounds of race.