Why manifestos still matter (even if nobody reads them)

12th February, 2013 6:16 am

Although the general election still seems a long way off, this year is one that will really matter in terms of developing policy and shaping what the party manifestos look like.

Given the amount of time and effort that goes into producing election manifestos, the number of people who actually read them is frighteningly small. Every campaign, parties make determined efforts to get them onto shelves but their sales hardly threaten JK Rowling or even the authors of well-known political diaries (still available in all good book shops)….

But for the millions of voters who decide the election outcome…well for the overwhelming majority, life’s too short.

That does not mean manifestos can be dismissed as vanity publishing. Their contents shape the campaign and, you hope, your years in Government. The decision to rule out a rise in either the basic or top rate of income tax before the 1997 election was not just critical in persuading the country to trust us on the economy but set a direction for the Government.

It also explains why the launch of the manifesto is a vital moment in any election campaign. It is each party’s day in the sun. Get it right and your campaign momentum can be unstoppable.

Get it wrong and it can be hard to recover – although we still managed to win in 2001 despite Sharon Storer haranguing Tony Blair outside a hospital, Jack Straw being slow-hand-clapped by the Police Federation, and John Prescott punching a protestor all somewhat taking the edge off our launch. So much for being a control-freak.

Getting it right means more than a manifesto containing a policy for every issue or interest group – a mistake Labour made plenty of times in the past. It has to be a programme with direction and coherence. A strategy for Government, not just a package of (hopefully) attractive measures.

Nor can you forget what is in your manifesto when you arrive in Government. Ask Nick Clegg what happens if you do. And what’s left out can be just as dangerous as what’s included. Look at how Cameron’s party opponents use the absence of gay marriage from the manifesto to oppose it. A manifesto forces discipline on sometimes reluctant MPs and party.

As we reach the halfway stage between elections, we should see the party leaders setting out the framework into which their policies will fit. Ed Miliband has signalled his intention with his One Nation speech.

Next he will have to work out detailed economic policy, something which the government has sought to make into a problem with their incessant ‘all Labour’s fault/mess we inherited’ mantra, against which Labour have not pushed back hard enough. But there is time to develop and communicate strategy and policy in a way that builds credibility.

Once the solid economic foundations are laid, the other issues can be addressed in detail. Governments have to develop and enact policy all the time. Oppositions have a little more flexibility. But we are now entering the stage when the Road to the Manifesto begins. Decisions made now will shape the final document and, even if the readership figures are low, its contents will go a long way towards deciding whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is Prime Minister in 2015.

A longer version of this essay is included in Portland’s new publication ‘Road to the Manifestos’, with further contributions by Michael Portillo and James O’Shaughnessy

  • AlanGiles

    Fear not. I am sure if Arnie Graf and Jon Crudas have anything to do with it, the 2015 manifesto will become a best seller. Unputdownable. Guests will be choosing it as their one book on Desert Island Discs, and so many will choose it on that and “A Good Read” that they will have to put a quota on it.
    I just hope it is rather more concise than much of the hot air that has been spouted over “one nation”, and rather more realistic. A word of advice: it might be idea to actually HAVE some policies, formulate them, beforehand. We all know what the party is against (or says it is against) but we know very little about what they are actually FOR (apart from 1N, that is)
    However, promise the unttainable it will probably garner the sort of spoof reviews that the late Joe Orton penned for his blurb on Dorothy L,. Sayers “Clouds of Witness” (for those who don’t know it, the perororation begins, ‘this is a book to read behind closed doors’

  • David Pavett

    “As we reach the halfway stage between elections, we should see the party leaders setting out the framework into which their policies will fit. Ed Miliband has signalled his intention with his One Nation speech.”

    Does this not betray a hint of desperation (I certainly feel it)? I cannot remember so much hope being pinned on two words (one nation) and with so little justification. “One nation” is not a shiny new concept which lays the foundation for anything. It is a bit of conference rhetoric and nothing more. Jon Cruddas’ attempts to amplify it make this abundantly clear.

    “Next he will have to work out detailed economic policy … Once the solid economic foundations are laid, the other issues can be addressed in detail.”

    Very true, but where are the indications that this is happening? Writing to Ed Ball’s office to ask for information (four or five time) produced no response – not much sign of openness there.

    I agree with Alistair Campbell about the role of Manifestos although I have to say that with that in mind the next election does not seem far away to me. One of my main interests is education. The low level of activity and discussion on that topic is hard to believe. Education does not even figure in Jon Cruddas’ list of topics to be dealt with in the first phase of work building towards the next manifesto. How is that? I really don’t understand what sense of evaluation makes such an omission possible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/colin.butler.7330 Colin Butler

    Perhaps people would read manifestos if politicians carried them out.
    The 1997 Labour manifesto promised PR elections. No change there then. The manifestos of all 3 parties last time promised lords reform. No change there then…

  • Winston_from_the_Ministry

    The problem is not whether people read them.

    It’s whether people stick to them.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Lisbon Treaty (yes, you, Gordon, wherever you are hiding this week)? Lib Dem education pledges? And most of the tories’ 2010 work of fiction****. No one is very interested in husky dogs hugging hoodies.

      **** See http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/datablog/2010/nov/22/coalition-pledge-tracker-data

      • John Ruddy

        Why this obsession with Gordon Brown’s whereabouts?
        As it happens, at the moment he is leading a campaign to save the Remploy factories in Fife. It wont get him any newspaper coverage, which means that folk can keep trying to make cheap shots. But its working on behalf of his constituents who think he’s doing a great job. And at the end fo the day, its their views that matter.

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas

          Of course those views are important. But he was also the most disastrous Chancellor this country has ever had, and from that position bullied his way to the prime ministership, where his performance was even worse than it was when he was Chancellor. As far as I am aware, he has never been held to account for his catastrophic part in our public life.

          It is not only the people of Kirkaldy that he effects. Our grandchildren will still be paying for his mistakes.

    • http://toque.co.uk/ Toque

      I won’t read a Labour or Tory manifesto until those parties start producing a manifesto for England. The Lib Dems manage to produce a manifesto for England, so why can’t Labour do it?

      The only excuse I can think of is that the ‘federal’ UK manifesto would be wafer thin.

  • Amber_Star

    “Getting it right means more than a manifesto containing a policy for every issue or interest group – a mistake Labour made plenty of times in the past.”
    —————
    IMO, Alistair’s (above) comment neatly describes the 2011 Scottish Labour Manifesto. It was the final nail in the coffin for Labour Activists when it eventually appeared. There was scarcely a policy which could be taken to the doorsteps of ‘ordinary’ people. And we got trounced.

    I sincerely hope that Labour UK has learned from Labour in Scotland’s mistake. Activists need something pertinent & credible to campaign on; & we need it launched with enough time to allow for a strong follow-up campaign!

    • aracataca

      But not yet Amber. We released our policies years before the general elections in the 1980s and 1990s and it was tactically disastrous.

  • LeeMatthews

    When Parliament went to the high court to confirm that Manifesto’s are not legally binding then they are not worth the paper they are written on. They can be changed any time after an election. They should be made a contract between the political party that writes it and the British people and only allowed to be changed if there is good enough reason.

  • uglyfatbloke

    Lee – that would mean politicians taking responsibility for their actions and having to be truthful…who wants that? Imagine a world where 400 MPs could go to jail just for stealing money on their expenses?

    Next thing you know people will want a democratic electoral system and who knows where that would lead?

  • David Pavett

    “As we reach the halfway stage between elections, we should see the party leaders setting out the framework into which their policies will fit. Ed Miliband has signalled his intention with his One Nation speech.”

    Does this not betray a hint of desperation (I certainly feel it)? I cannot remember so much hope being pinned on two words (one nation) and with so little justification. “One nation” is not a shiny new concept which lays the foundation for anything. It is a bit of conference rhetoric and nothing more. Jon Cruddas’ attempts to amplify it make this abundantly clear.

    “Next he will have to work out detailed economic policy … Once the solid economic foundations are laid, the other issues can be addressed in detail.”

    Very true, but where are the indications that this is happening? Writing to the Labour Party for information about economic policy (four or five time) produced no response – not much sign of openness there.

    I agree with Alistair Campbell about the role of Manifestos although I have to say that with that in mind the next election does not seem far away to me. One of my main interests is education. The low level of activity and discussion on that topic is hard to believe. Education does not even figure in Jon Cruddas’ list of topics to be dealt with in the first phase of work building towards the next manifesto. How is that? I really don’t understand what sense of evaluation makes such an omission possible.

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