1. Is that actually true?
Politicians like straplines and soundbites. Often a memorable phrase can become almost permanently attached to a policy, party or idea and have significant impact – either to repeatedly commend it, or to discredit it. When such phrases stick in our minds they can feel true, even if there is very little evidence to support them. So if a phrase or description grabs you, ask yourself whether there is any substance behind it.
2. What does that really mean?
You might remember Donald Trump’s famous slogan “make America great again!” It certainly captured the imagination, but commentators were quick to point out how the word “great” can mean a lot of different things. One person’s definition of “great” might be someone else’s idea of “awful”. So when a politician or media commentator uses a word that resonates or grates with you – stop and consider the degree to which they are using a generalisation that can mean multiple things to different people.
3. How will that happen?
Candidates have one simple aim. On polling day they want you to sufficiently like them or the party they represent, to choose them above their opponents. And if there is one way to get people to like you, it’s to say and promise the things they know that you want to hear. Campaigners will make commitments that may well be genuine aspirations, but how are they going to actually achieve them? Do they have a workable strategy to make it happen? Can they back up their headline claims with effective plans?
4. What were they really saying?
The media coverage of politics tends to place great focus on a particular phrase or comment that a politician comes out with – especially if they say something that shocks or startles. Commentators may also lock onto a particular statement because it appears to reinforce a narrative that their media outlet has already decided to pursue. But such comments can often be edited or presented completely out of context. They may be nothing more than a slip of the tongue or convey an unintended double meaning. Of course there are moments when such “gaffs” do reveal an individual’s true colours. But always ask the question, “What did they actually mean by that?”
5. Who is telling me this?
Much of the information we absorb in an election campaign will be filtered through media outlets. Some are quite openly slanted in a particular political direction, but all have their own priorities and concerns. There is simply too much happening in any given day, for us to be presented with anything other than a few highlights that an editor has decided upon. If a politician gives a speech, it will have lasted for several minutes, perhaps longer – but you are likely to be shown just 2-3 sentences from it. Every presenter will also have their own views of right or wrong – even their tone of voice can convey an implicit message of disapproval. Why has a particular media outlet told you about this? Are they communicating what happened or their take on what happened? What is reality and what is opinion?
6. Was that question fair?
A constant criticism of politicians is that they don’t answer questions. We’ve all seen interviews where an individual does everything but give a straight answer. But do we always stop to consider whether it was a reasonable question in the first place? Many of the issues that Parliament deals with are complex and require weighing up conflicting needs and interests. Interviewers can often present things in an over-simplistic light and ask questions that no reasonable person would answer with a straight “yes” or “no”.
7. Is this backed up with facts?
Elections can be dominated by big slogans and broad claims. These can help give a sense of the overall purpose and priorities of a party, but they can also be remarkably vague and deliberately misleading. Think about this particularly when parties make pledges to spend or save money – the more important questions are “What are you going to spend that money on?” and “How much will it actually save?” Also try to keep a sense of scale. “We will spend £10m on…” sounds significant, but how far will that money go given we're talking about a national programme? As the big messages and slogans emerge, try to dig down and find out what facts, figures, intentions and practical outcomes actually lie behind them.
8. If others are wrong are they right?
Under a Labour government, dental treatment will be painful and the British weather will be unreliable. This statement might make you less inclined to vote Labour, but the simple truth is that under a Conservative governement (or any other shade of government) those things will be no different. This is a silly example, but statements like this can often be conveyed over more subtle issues. And even in those areas that a government can impact and affect – none are perfect and all have to make difficult and painful choices. So when representatives of one party accuse their opponents of a particularly unpopular policy direction or intent – stop and ask the question “will you actually be any different?”. “Is that a problem of their making or would it be a problem anyway?
9. What are the things that matter to me?
Finally, remember that this is your vote and it doesn’t belong to anyone else. Campaigners will not only try to make their case on particular issues, but also significantly influence the things that get talked about and portrayed as important. Before you get too engulfed by election coverage, take some time to think through the issues that matter to you. Whether or not they make it to the front pages and evening news bulletins, try to find out what the main parties are saying about those things; read up on what your local candidates say about them, and don’t be afraid to ask doorstep canvassers and other campaigners about the things that matter to you.
Phil Jump is regional minister for North Western Baptist Association and a Baptist Union Trustee. He is also a part of Industrial Christian Fellowship, from where this article was taken. For more information visit icf-online.org