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 chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide