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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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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