What is the point of party manifestos? Nigel Farage famously called UKIP’s own 2010 manifesto “drivel”; a rare moment of political truth telling.
The theory of the manifesto is seductive. A party seeks votes by setting out a list of specific policies and promises. If elected, this is the basis of their mandate, and they are expected to legislate or administer in order to fulfil that bargain with the electorate.
In practice, nothing of the sort happens, nor could it. There is so much that can’t be controlled directly by a government, important policies may not even be implementable, or their virtues demonstrated within the limits of a five year tenure. Moreover, where majority government has not been anticipated as an electoral outcome, no one actually expects all, or even any, specific manifesto promise to be implemented. The present government is stuck in the uncomfortable position of not being able now to disown their more ridiculous pledges, such as the confiscation of charitable property and its sale to individuals at knock-down prices at a cost of over five billion pounds to the taxpayer, aka the compulsory sale of housing association property. This costly promise, condemned across the political spectrum, and which is likely to result in the housing crisis becoming worse, is just one example of the ‘manifesto problem’.
I can anticipate many objections to this viewpoint. After all, voters need to know what the parties are offering before they cast their votes. And in any case, there have been great manifestos, such as Labour’s in 1945.
I like to eulogise the Attlee government as much as any sentimental lefty. Nonetheless, we sometimes praise them for the wrong things, or fail to understand their context. Many of the pillars of the welfare state had been put in place under the wartime coalition, such as the 1944 Education Act. The economy being on a war footing, with the de facto ‘nationalisation’ of key sectors, especially energy, transport, and some manufacturing meant that public ownership was much less radical than it looks now. The Economist, no friend of Labour, said of Labour’s 1945 manifesto that it was “almost the least they could get away with”, so cautious was the party, compared to the appetite of the electorate for radical change.
So I’d like to propose a change for the next general election, whenever it may come. Ditch manifestos. Make no specific promises. Instead, give us a “Direction of Travel” document outlining the kind of things the party would like to see happen in the country and in the world, with some indication of how they might be achieved.
If that sounds too vague and woolly, too bad. But I think it would focus minds on what the parties are for.
My 2015 Tory Direction of Travel document would thus have read: “We do not want to let a crisis go to waste. The financial crash caused by the banks has frightened people into accepting the need for radical change. We therefore propose to cut back the state, year on year, and move responsibility for as many matters as possible from the state to the private realm. That means individual citizens being responsible for themselves and their families as far as possible, and private companies delivering other services on behalf of the state only where absolutely necessary. We would aim over time, though we don’t know how long it will take, to reduce the deficit, eventually bringing taxation and spending into line, but at a much lower level than in the past. We understand that medical care free at the point of delivery matters greatly to people, but we don’t think they care who delivers that care, so we will protect the umbrella brand NHS whilst increasing the involvement of the private sector in delivering that care on a for-profit basis. Ditto education. We want to end the anomaly of the BBC, and will do this by starving it of cash until it can be killed by commercial rivals. Conservatives want government to do less, to pay for less, and be be held responsible for less.”
My 2015 Labour Direction of Travel document would have read: “We want to move as soon as possible to a position where deficits are rare, and tax and spending broadly in balance, as it was over most of the 1997-2010 Labour years, at least before the crash caused by bankers. We recognise that in many areas free markets do not exist, and the result is companies, such as those in the energy sector, ripping off consumers. We will intervene where markets are rigged. We recognise that in many areas of the economy wages are too low and conditions at work too insecure. We will try to raise living standards where we can, by moving towards a living wage, and also by providing incentives to businesses to invest to improve productivity. We have learned from our mistakes on the NHS and now understand that the complex ecosystem of health care, public health policy, and medical innovation and research requires reducing and limiting private sector involvement in the NHS. We also see that in an ageing society there needs to be an integration of health and social care. On education we have nothing to say. Labour wants government to continue to have a key role in ensuring basic standards of decency for the citizen from the cradle to the grave.”
The third largest party in Parliament also deserves a Direction of Travel doc: “The SNP wants Scotland to be independent. Otherwise we’ll basically do the same as Labour would do, unless something else becomes popular, at which point we will change. Because all roads must lead to independence.”
UKIP: “We want to leave the EU and we don’t like immigration. That’s it.”
For Liberal Democrat, see Tory plus voting reform and greater respect for civil liberties.
I think these are fair summaries of what the parties actually offered voters in the last election.