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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle