Are traditional party manifestos dead? Photo: Getty
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Have party manifestos had their day?

The evolution of our politics into a multi-party system would make traditional party manifestos redundant.

One of the unforeseen effects of any evolution of British politics into a five or six party system, with inevitable coalition governments, is the redundancy of the traditional party manifesto.

The need to find common ground between potential coalition partners means the main parties have to water down, or even abandon, cherished manifesto commitments in the interests of making a deal. For junior partners, it also means swallowing measures they don’t like and didn’t put to their electors, as commitments are carved up and spliced together to provide a joint platform.

To put this in context, the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto, the rather twee “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”, ran to some 118 pages. In contrast, the coalition’s “Our Programme for Government” boiled down to just 32 pages.

The reason manifestos have outlived their purpose is that it is deeply disingenuous to be definitive about what you would do one day, only to abandon that position, or, even worse, reverse it, the next. If we really are heading towards a less majoritarian system, then our political parties need to face up to the fact that the public’s trust in our system is gossamer enough without encouraging them to break commitments as the necessary precondition of sharing power.

Moreover, the current system fails because there is no recourse for parties that do break their commitments. In its 1997 manifesto, Labour pledged “a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons”. This would see, “an independent commission on voting systems . . . appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system”. Roy Jenkins was tasked with coming up with an alternative, which he duly did, but Tony Blair never held the referendum.

Also, the value – and integrity – of a manifesto depends on which issues the parties leave out. Back in 1992, the Conservatives’ manifesto made no commitment to ratifying the Maastricht Treaty, helpfully avoiding party infighting before the campaign. Similarly, none of the parties in 2010 promised to legislate for same-sex marriage, but all voted for it in 2013.

This highlights another glaring weakness of the current system: the pace of events. Politics moves immeasurably faster than when Sir Robert Peel published his Tamworth Manifesto – the first – in December 1834. Unless we are going to have much shorter parliaments, governments need to peer five years ahead when writing their manifestos. By relying on their wayward soothsaying, we build let-downs and betrayals into our current system.

In future, it might be better for parties to set out a clearer, shorter series of harder commitments. This might even include an indication about which other parties they would favour working with in the event of a hung parliament. Parties would need to work much harder at defining their brand in a more values-based way to withstand the effects of any long-term move to coalition politics.

Perhaps, though, the most basic failing of the party manifesto is that nobody reads them. Peel addressed his remarks, rather obsequiously, to the “great and intelligent class of society”. Even back then, manifestos were an elite preoccupation. In the intervening 180 years, not much has changed.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.