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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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.