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A referendum on metrics we care about as a society


Being fixated on planning at the moment, the truism of how important it is to carefully pick the metrics by which you define success lingers in the back of my mind.

You get what you measure

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It strikes me that the only measurable metric which we can be assured will be discussed, extrapolated, and prioritised during every election cycle is that of economic growth: normally – but not always – measured by GDP.

Metrics in the UK parties' manifestos

In the 2019 manifesto from the Conservatives, only one out of the six points in Boris's Guarantee is based on a measurable outcome ("Reaching Net Zero by 2050"). The obvious problem here is that the deadline is 30 years in the future: I think we really some checkpoints along the way.

Labour's pledges were a little harder to parse as their manifesto was infamously sprawling. From the first section alone (there are five in total), I pulled out no fewer than 55 separate initiatives which I include below1.

The vast majority of these initiatives aren't measurable (e.g. "expand distributed and community energy", "reform taxi and private hire services"). The ones which are measurable lack paired metrics and are very low on detail.

The issue is in the presentation, not the content

Personally, I'm actually in favour of many of the projects and initiatives listed in this section of the Labour manifesto. I also like the idea of increased NHS and infrastructure investments in the Conservatives' guarantee.

The issue isn't the content of the documents, it's how we talk about priorities and measure delivery.

  • We don't want "Extra funding for the NHS". We want reduced waiting times, improved patient outcomes, and higher job satisfaction for nurses.
  • We don't want "free bus travel for under-25s" or 3,000 cut public transport routes to be reinstated. We want decreased car usage, less congestion, and lower nitrogen dioxide levels.
  • We don't want "20,000 more police". We want fewer crimes.

You get what you measure

At the same time, there is constant coverage of GDP and economic outlook in even the non-financial press. Every so-called developed nation has at least one agency responsible for measuring GDP.

When the non-economic targets are so diffuse and mercurial, is it any change that we end up with successive governments that – in aggregate – prioritise raw economic growth over the well-being of the electorate?

The unexpected outcomes of rash metric selection

As Simon Caulkin wrote in The Guardian:

What gets measured gets managed – so be sure you have the right measures, because the wrong ones kill.

Simon Caulkin

He recounts the story of how the neoliberal dream of increasing competition in the NHS did indeed improve patient waiting times. However, at the same time the death rate for certain emergency admissions spiked.

Separately, data from both New York and London show that increasing stop-and-search police activity increases arrest rate significantly. However, it doesn't appear to have any significant effect on actual crime rate.

When assessed with one set of metrics, both schemes were a great success. Taking knives off the streets via more arrests sounds positive! Decreased waiting times sounds great! But would the racially-profiled young black man in New York agree? How about the bereaved family of a heart-attack victim in the UK?

In both cases, the government can tout the upsides of their projects by cherry-picking which metrics to brief on, after the fact. In both cases, the schemes were – holistically – failures.

What could we do differently?

Politicians obviously do consider what people think is important when formulating their policies and drawing up manifestos. Huge industries exist to poll people across a spectrum of issues and deliver insights to the policy-makers, broken down by demographics.

Rather than private polling firms gauging interest in the completion of this or that project, consider a system where we make a transparent communal assessment of how highly we rate certain metrics. Each metric would be precisely defined, the body responsible for measuring it would be named, and their methodology would be shared.

It would be like a national referendum on priorities.

The political parties would all have access to these data, and then be responsible for drawing up a plan for how they would address the people's priorities: or, realistically, the subset of the priorities most popular with their core voters.

This would have several beneficial effects:

  • It would force the political parties to tie their policies directly to the outcomes they are trying to achieve. It would discourage flowery language which sounds nice, but doesn't actually add up to much.
  • Throughout a political term, we would have constant feedback on how the party is doing, as measured by the metrics most important to the populus.
  • It would highlight misalignment between the stated priorities of the electorate, and the allocation of resources in the budget.
  • Those in power would be disincentivised from plowing forward with projects which don't actually make sense: the cost of political U-turns would be decreased and therefore we would become more flexible and adaptable.
  • Voters could more easily choose between parties based on how well their goals are aligned, rather than following the inertia of the last general election, or based on superficial attributes of the politicians themselves.
  • Towards the end of a political term, the party in power would find it much harder to hide behind carefully selected successful projects, or cherry-picked metrics.

Overall, it would engender an atmosphere of discussion of the priorities and issues, rather than the polarised partisanship which has prevailed over the last ten years.


  1. From the Green Industrial Revolution section of Labour's 2019 manifesto:

    • create one million jobs in the UK
    • create a Sustainable Investment Board
    • launch a National Transformation Fund of £400 billion
    • National Investment Bank, backed up by a network of Regional Development Banks, to provide £250 billion
    • bring about a radical decentralisation of power
    • deliver nearly 90% of electricity and 50% of heat from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030
    • 7,000 new offshore wind turbines
    • 2,000 new onshore wind turbines
    • Enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches.
    • New nuclear power needed for energy security.
    • upgrade almost all of the UK’s 27 million homes to the highest energy-efficiency standards
    • roll out technologies like heat pumps, solar hot water and hydrogen
    • expand power storage and invest in grid enhancements and interconnectors
    • expand distributed and community energy
    • immediately and permanently ban fracking
    • introduce a windfall tax on oil companies
    • bringing our energy and water systems into democratic public ownership
    • A new UK National Energy Agency will own and maintain the national grid infrastructure and oversee the delivery of our decarbonisation targets.
    • 14 new Regional Energy Agencies will replace the existing district network operators and hold statutory responsibility for decarbonising electricity and heat and reducing fuel poverty.
    • The supply arms of the Big Six energy companies will be brought into public ownership where they will continue to supply households with energy while helping them to reduce their energy demands.
    • Whenever public money is invested in an energy generation project, the public sector will take a stake and return profits to the public.
    • instruct the Committee on Climate Change to assess the emissions the UK imports as well as those it produces
    • create an innovation nation, setting a target for 3% of GDP to be spent on research and development (R&D) by 2030
    • establish a Foundation Industries Sector Council
    • investing in three new gigafactories and four metal reprocessing plants
    • uphold the highest environmental and social regulations in all our trade relations, and will never downgrade standards as ‘barriers’ to trade
    • review public expenditure on transport to ensure that it promotes environmental sustainability
    • Labour will introduce free bus travel for under-25s
    • increase and expand local services, reinstating the 3,000 routes that have been cut
    • bringing our railways back into public ownership
    • implement a full, rolling programme of electrification
    • introduce a long-term investment plan including delivering Crossrail for the North
    • extend high-speed rail networks nationwide by completing the full HS2 route to Scotland
    • create towns and cities in which walking and cycling are the best choice
    • The Conservatives have committed to ending new sales of combustion engine vehicles by 2040. Labour will aim for 2030.
    • position the UK at the forefront of the development and manufacture of ultra-low emission vehicles
    • reform taxi and private hire services
    • adopt an ambitious Vision Zero approach to UK road safety
    • take action to end nationality-based discrimination in seafarer pay
    • review and improve protected area designations
    • introduce a Climate and Environment Emergency Bill
    • maintain and continuously improve the existing EU standards of environmental regulation
    • embark on an ambitious programme of tree planting
    • fully fund the Environment Agency and other frontline environment agencies
    • create new National Parks alongside a revised system of other protected area designations
    • establish a new environmental tribunal
    • maintain agricultural and rural structural funds but repurpose them to support environmental land management
    • invest in more county farms to replace those lost
    • introduce A Right to Food
    • halve food bank usage within a year
    • put farmers, fishers, food producers and workers at the heart of our plans for delivering healthy food locally
    • set maximum sustainable yields for all shared fish stocks, redistribute fish quotas along social and environmental criteria
    • achieve net-zero-carbon food production in Britain by 2040
    • make producers responsible for the waste they create and for the full cost of recycling or disposal
    • invest in three new recyclable steel plants in areas with a proud history of steel manufacturing
    • introduce an animal welfare commissioner, prohibit the sale of snares and glue traps, end the badger cull and ban the keeping of primates as pets