The end of pledge-card politics?

No, but it’s struggling to catch up with the challenge of 2015.

The next election will see a battered electorate in need of economic and social respite confronted by a political elite woefully lacking in resources and public trust. Never in recent times will so much be asked from leaders who have so little to respond with.

The result is starting to pose interesting questions about some of the familiar features of electoral politics – one of these is the entrenched cult of pledge-card politics and the type of statecraft that underpins it.

The art of boiling down an entire election pitch to easily marketed bite-size promises – "short and catchy" as Peter Mandelson used to put it - reached its zenith in the UK in 1997 and has dominated subsequent campaigns even if the pledges have paled over time. Looking back there was an inverse rule between the size of the pledges and what they succeeded in communicating. In 1997, some of the commitments were certainly modest yet still managed to say something significant about the character of the future Blair government (not least by specifying where resources would be found to pay for new spending). By 2005 they were bigger, baggier and blander; communicating far less. As for 2010, there is possibly no-one in the country, including the authors, who could now recount Labour’s key promises.

It would be wrong, of course, to read too much into pledge cards themselves. For some they are simply an essential part of political communications that can be largely divorced from deeper questions of how the state is governed. But like it or not, they are a leitmotif of the nature of politics and reveal something about how our leaders view the relationship between the state, civil society and individuals.

And on that basis, questions are being asked. One query concerns semantics: for a cynical electorate a ‘pledge’ is simply something that is made today in order to be broken tomorrow. The currency has been devalued, if not yet debauched. Another set of doubts concerns the lack of suitability of pledges which reflect a ‘state delivery’ mode of politics (itself rooted in a period of rising public service provision) for an austere era which will be more characterised by taking from, rather than giving to, the public. If 2010 was the first – if largely faux – election campaign in which steady growth was viewed as being a highly uncertain prospect, with the rising tide of public spending likely to recede, then 2015 will be completely dominated by these themes. Just as policy will need to change to reflect new times, so will the appendages of election campaigns.

Others contend the problem with pledge-card politics is structural, not just cyclical. They wish to call time on the whole notion that the primary task of democratic politics is to ‘make offers’ in response to immediate voter demands. Matthew Taylor, author of Labour’s 2005 manifesto and no innocent when it comes to elections, now argues that just as the mood turned against the belief that short-term profit maximisation is the most effective way of running business, so there is growing disillusionment with the idea that elections should be reduced to competing check lists for voter gratification.

Which doesn’t, of course, mean ignoring underlying public sentiment, it just registers scepticism about entirely poll-driven accounts of ‘what the electorate wants’. Over-hyped promises that often aren’t fulfilled, made by leaders you have little faith in, treating you like a passive recipient of central beneficence rather than an agent of change: it hardly captures the post-crisis political sensibility.

Part of this apparent shift in thinking within parts of the centre-left can be attributed to the familiar rhythm of opposition parties temporarily warming to the appeals of localism. And there is a palpable desire to be seen to retreat from the high-water mark of statism that Labour was seen to have reached by the end of its period in office.

But it’s not just about optics. It also reflects serious effort to appraise the strengths and weaknesses of New Labour statecraft. Geoff Mulgan, one of the sharpest observers of the changing nature of government, recently set out for IPPR a hard-hitting assessment of some of the pathologies of the delivery state – all the more telling as it is so balanced and authored by someone who was at the heart of government for so long. It gets past the now standard, already tired, refrain that ‘we relied too heavily on top-down targets’ to consider how, where and why a highly centralised model of public service delivery can corrode trust in the state as well as relationships between public servants and citizens. He recognises, rightly, there will always be many crucial things that the state needs to do for (or indeed to) people but emphasises that the balance has shifted fundamentally towards services that need to be run in concert with them. That’s hardly a new insight. But in an era of diminishing resources it is one that urgently needs to move from the margins to the mainstream of how we think about governing

What all this means for the manner in which the different parties will seek to pitch themselves to the electorate in 2015 is yet to be seen. The demands of governing and the established modes of communicating policy in election campaigns appear to be out of sync. In some respects, David Cameron already tried and failed to break the mould in 2010. Rather than majoring on a populist list of promises he produced a 130 page invitation to join "the Government of Britain". And he’s been paying the price ever since. His unruly backbenchers remind him on a daily basis of his failure to provide them with a convincing ‘retail’ offer – in the ugly argot of Westminster politics - that cut through on the door-step. So safe to say there will be a different tack in 2015. Similarly, Jon Cruddas, Labour’s policy supremo and sceptic–in-chief of top-down delivery politics, has already pencilled in a pledge-card moment into his 2015 timeline.

This isn’t just because pledging is a hard habit to break, though of course it is. It’s also a rule of thumb that low trust politics tend towards the highly contractual; just as austerity politics tends towards the distributional (we’ll fund a commitment for group A by extracting this sum from group B). And both tendencies lend themselves to sharp, pithy commitments. So think 1997, not 2005.

Challenges abound for Labour (as with the other parties) as it contemplates its 2015 version of a "contract with Britain". One is avoiding a patch-work of specific policy promises aimed at different sections of the electorate which fail to add up to a majoritarian agenda with wide appeal. Another pitfall would be to issue an entirely defensive and uninspiring set of pledges centred on areas of spending that would be protected from further cuts. And then there is the risk of feeding expectations of another phase of centrally-driven delivery commitments reliant on an increase in public spending that isn’t going to occur.

The governing and fiscal challenges of the next decade will require fundamental change in how the state operates. Pledge-card politics need to catch up.

John Prescott presents his battered 1997 general election pledge card to the audience as he addresses the Scottish Labour Party conference on March 27, 2010 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.