Promises, promises for one and all

With old loyalties gone, politicians must satisfy consumer appetites

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Every parent knows that it is dangerous to make promises to a child. Pledge that you will give them a toy or take them on holiday, and you raise their hopes, casting them into a waiting lounge where they hold their breath as they live in hope.

Beyond the confines of the family, promises are contracts and, in law, a broken contract is a serious matter, with the possibility of legal redress and appropriate compensation. In moral terms, too, promises are binding; to promise something you can't deliver is to lie.

This moral principle sits uneasily in the adman's world that has become such a prominent feature of our society. Here, pledges and commitments are common currency - and broken promises are daily occurrences. We, the consumers, have grown accustomed to the advertisers' hyperbole; we have learnt to read the small print, we are no longer shy of taking claims to court or appeals tribunals, and we are ready to sue for faulty goods and services. To consume is to buy the right to complain.

Our familiarity with adman-speak enables us to spot a salesman's pitch a mile away; we can sense the purveyor of broken promises without too much difficulty. Thus schooled in consumerism, voters are alert to bogus claims. So it has not proved difficult for us to see this government for what it is, rather than for what it claims to be: it is not a moral, but an advertising, government.

Think back to 1997, when new Labour issued its "contract with the people", a manifesto that trumpeted that "Britain will be better with new Labour" and solemnly declared: "We have made it our guiding rule not to promise what we cannot deliver, and to deliver what we promise." (Rather recklessly, it went on to add that "broken promises taint all politics".)

Labour's election promises were fulsome - and, for one reckless moment, we believed them. Among those first promises made in the rosy dawn of a new era was Robin Cook's pledge to promote an ethical dimension to foreign policy. As advertising slogans go, it was totally unrealistic: how can a country with a large and aggressive arms trade begin to cancel deals left, right and centre, without giving rise to unemployment? Not surprisingly, Cook soon opted to go along with existing licences for export.

But there were other promises, too: to cut class sizes; to cut NHS waiting-lists; to put 250,000 under-25-year-olds into work; to halve the time between arrest and sentencing of persistent young offenders.

If new Labour's election manifesto promised much, its advertising spiel sounded no more far-fetched than previous Tory ones had done. Indeed, it seems to be in the nature of modern politics to make promises, thereby raising our hopes, only to dash them later.

The political promise made its debut in the postwar period. Hitherto, politicians and their parties could rely on class loyalty, trade union solidarity or community ties. The politician who could rely on, or appeal to, this web of interrelations was confident that it would carry him into power - and support him once installed.

But today, ours is a more fragmented society in which everyone has a particular agenda. To court any significant group, the politician must know its wish list, rather than its allegiances. We bring to the political arena our consumer appetites - and demand that they be met instantly, for we are used to the pace of instant design makeovers, dial-a-meal and divorce on the net. We believe that even major changes can be effected within months, at most a year, after a general election.

This is the culture of the self-employed, in which you fend for yourself and your own; you have no security, few connections and no one seems to care. It is also the culture of "choice": if a political party doesn't deliver, we shop around for another one. Or, increasingly, we take the consumer's route of complaint: look at the brilliantly orchestrated fuel tax protest that brought ordinary people to the barricades. And this was just the most vociferous and most powerful instance of direct complaint by the electorate. Before the fuel crisis, we had the ladies of the Women's Institute booing and slow-handclapping their grievances against a prime minister who had promised to fix their beloved NHS and improve their children's schools.

Then there was the Countryside Alli-ance, protesting with marches and placards against the proposed ban on fox- hunting. We also had the Scottish cardinal who rallied Scotland's homophobes to complain about plans to drop Section 28. And how about the News of the World-backed vigilantes who swarmed around housing estates looking for paedophiles and terrorising the innocent? Finally, what of the resentment against the sentence given Tony Martin, a man who shot dead an unarmed burglar at close range?

These are all symptoms of that buoyant consumer power, the sense the public has that it can short-circuit public policy and act out its own will directly and immediately. Just as it does with faulty goods.

The Labour Party now faces the reckoning for its first term: it will need to appease frustrated voters, reassure us that those broken promises do not prove that it is a desperately ambitious political posse, ready to promise anything to anyone in order to get elected. Labour must win our trust again, coax us into waiting patiently for its promises to be delivered.

But if new Labour must regain its credibility, it must also keep an eye on the Tories, who are throwing promises about like confetti, confident in the knowledge that they won't have to live up to them. Every parent knows you should never promise more than you can deliver; but every politician knows you can't win elections unless you promise more than the opposition.

New Labour must decide what its next manifesto will promise. And what its next term can deliver.

This article appears in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place