Manifestospeak: What can linguistic analysis tell us about politicians and their attitudes?

06/05/2015  -  1.15

Professor Patrick Hanks

Patrick Hanks, Professor in Lexicography and Dr Sara Moze, Research Associate in Lexicography.

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 (http://rgcl.wlv.ac.uk/research/dvc-disambiguation-of-verbs-by-collocation) at the University of Wolverhampton have been using their corpus-analysis tools to explore the language used in the manifestos of four parties: Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens.

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. 

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.”

Green:

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.

Conservative:

TO SECURE YOUR FIRST JOB we will create 3 million new apprenticeships [...]

We will find £12 billion from welfare savings, on top of the £21 billion of savings delivered in this Parliament.

Table 1: 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.  

Particular issues

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 overto 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.”

Find out more about what they have to say about education, Europe, immigration, crime prevention, tax, racial discrimination,and the LGBT community by clicking on the following link: http://rgcl.wlv.ac.uk/2015/05/05/manifestospeak-what-can-linguistic-analysis-tell-us-about-politicians-and-their-attitudes .

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