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Substance or soundbite?

So, it’s 7 May 2015: the day of the General Election in the UK – it’s finally arrived and I’m feeling virtuous that I’ve done my bit by marking a cross with a stubby pencil in my chosen boxes. But the whole election campaign has felt a bit surreal and, in the end, who I trust has had more of an influence on the way I’ve voted than the individual policies or manifestos, which has surprised me. On social media, I’ve taken part in a couple of ‘quizzes’ designed to make you think about the policies rather than the politics. Pledges under different categories (The Economy, Education, Defence, Health etc.) were listed by party but with the party names replaced by ‘Party 1’, ‘Party 2’ and so on. My views were mixed: fifty percent for one party and twenty-five percent for each of two others. And, if you know me well, you’d be surprised by which parties those were.

I’m logical, intelligent and interested in my country’s political and economic future. I’ve listened to the arguments with varying degrees of interest, bewilderment and anger over the last few months. Each day there has been a claim or counter-claim by one of the main parties, which has been picked apart by pundits and analysts. But what I’ve found immensely frustrating is the lack of substance to so many of the manifesto pledges. Ed Miliband has said that Labour will remove non-domicile status for the richest in our society. David Cameron has pledged that the Conservatives will pump a further £8 billion into the NHS. Natalie Bennett (Green Party) wants to increase income tax rates for the highest earners.

But so what? What is the real impact of those statements? How much tax do we actually get from non-domiciles? Is it a significant amount or is it just designed to show that Labour wants to be Robin Hood because everyone likes Robin Hood, even if it’s only a token amount? Similarly, with the additional money being promised for the NHS, what percentage is it of the NHS’s annual budget? It sounds like a big number, because it is; but, given that the NHS is the world’s second largest employer after the Chinese Army (yes, really), how long will it last? When will the NHS receive it? What actual difference will it make to the number of doctors or nurses? To waiting times?

I would like to have had more facts and figures on which to base my opinions. Yet, as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Different figures can be manipulated to support your particular point of view. And, for the majority of the electorate, too many figures will just cause people’s eyes to glaze over. Understandably so. But without the numbers, it comes down to sound bites with our very important decision about who should run the country based on a hunch or gut reaction. Perhaps the answer to the political scenario is that they don’t know all the detail (see my previous post ‘Do we really have to know it all?’), which may be the case for the opposition parties. Or perhaps they could model different outcomes but, until any change is voted through, the true impact can only be educated guesswork.

It’s such a fine balance between giving too much information and not giving enough. You want to provide a substantive argument but you don’t want people to switch off. On Writing Skills courses, I talk about the importance of getting the level of detail right for the specific readers because not everybody needs to know everything. You might want to include detailed analysis in a report; but it might also be preferable to put that detail in an appendix rather than spoil the narrative flow with too many facts and figures. They’re there if you need them but you can skip them if you’d rather.

The impact of the sound bites will become clear from 10pm this evening, when the polls close. Maybe others have found the decision easier to make. The prospect of a hung parliament or minority government is certainly real. There are interesting times ahead.