Let’s follow the Dutch and fact check party policies before voting

Independent economic analysis of policy platforms is a useful public service

The Liberal party of the  prime minister, Mark Rutte plans to cut welfare payments, according to CPB analysis. Photograph: Epa/Julien Warnand

The Liberal party of the prime minister, Mark Rutte plans to cut welfare payments, according to CPB analysis. Photograph: Epa/Julien Warnand

 

While political parties in Ireland may publish individual policy papers between elections, parties wait until the election is underway to release their detailed manifestos. This leaves little time for detailed examination of what parties propose, and it is difficult for the media, on behalf of voters, to fact check long and complicated documents. The result is that issues other than the manifesto proposals tend to dominate the debate.

In the Netherlands they do things very differently. Unlike in any other democracy, over the past eight elections there has been a very structured approach to the analysis of the economic (and environmental) implications of the different party platforms.

This began in 1986 when three parties asked the Dutch Central Planning Bureau (CPB), an economic research body rather like Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), to analyse their manifestos. That independent analysis was published before the election, in order to inform voters.

It is now established practice that most Dutch parties voluntarily send their proposals to the CPB for analysis. The failure of any party to submit its proposals for independent analysis has attracted negative media comment, encouraging such parties to opt into the process at the following election.

Fragmented

As in Ireland, politics in the Netherlands has become more fragmented. A total of 11 parties submitted their manifestos for analysis last November – a record number. Interestingly, Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom, which is running on a trenchantly anti-immigrant platform, has not submitted its proposals for independent expert scrutiny.

The Central Planning Bureau published its findings of all 11 manifestos submitted to it a week ago, in Dutch and in English. The number of parties and the very tight timescale made this a very challenging task for the bureau. It had to analyse more than 1,000 different proposals within three months, all the time maintaining tight confidentiality protocols. The analysis provides Dutch voters with a very comprehensive economic assessment of the manifestos of most of the parties fighting the election.

One area of broad agreement, reported by the CPB, was that most of the parties would plan to eliminate the small budget surplus that is currently forecast for the next four years. This would involve a total stimulus over the period to 2021 of around 1 per cent of GDP, adding to growth. However, not surprisingly, there is a wide divergence on all the other details of policy.

Most parties prioritise the real incomes of those at work. However, the Liberal party of the current prime minister, Mark Rutte, plans to cut welfare payments, whereas most other parties would increase the income of welfare recipients, though at a slower rate than for those in employment.

The CPB estimates that, in the absence of a change in policy, inequality would rise slightly over the next four years. The really interesting innovation in this analysis by the CPB is that it has measured the potential impact of each party’s policies on inequality, and has estimated “Gini” coefficients for each suite of policies.

One new right wing party is proposing to replace taxed welfare benefits with a basic income and interestingly Benoit Hamon, who won the Socialist nomination for the French presidential election, is proposing a similar measure in that country. However the CPB estimates the Dutch version of the proposal would lead to a big increase in inequality.

Inequality

The plans put forward by Rutte’s Liberal Party have also been estimated as likely to add to inequality. By contrast, the manifestos of his coalition partner, the Dutch Labour party, and of the smaller socialist and green parties, have been assessed as likely to significantly reduce inequality.

Economic issues are often dominant in elections when times are tough, and other issues come to the fore as economies pick up. The current election in the Netherlands is being fought on a range of other non-economic issues, especially immigration. If voters’ attention is focused on issues other than economic ones, the findings of any economic analysis are likely to have a limited impact on the course of an election.

Elections have always been as much about appealing to the heart and not just the head. More worryingly has been the concerted trend to debunk independent expert analysis, whether Michael Gove’s assertion that people in Britain “have had enough of experts”, or Donald Trump’s labelling of serious journalism as “fake news”.

In spite of such challenges, independent economic analysis of parties’ policy platforms provides a really useful public service, and the Dutch model is one Ireland might emulate.

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