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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.