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 

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.