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5 December 2014

Have party manifestos had their day?

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

By Kevin Meagher

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.

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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.