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The secret life of an election pledge  

Labour and Conservative manifesto writers reveal the untold story of these vital documents.

By Samir Jeraj

Only a few years before New Labour pledged to introduce a minimum wage, the idea was widely dismissed as utopian or catastrophic. Even the leadership of some major trade unions thought it was a step too far. But by the 1997 election the policy had appeared in New Labour’s manifesto, and it became a flagship reform of the Tony Blair government.

What had changed? Part of the answer is that campaigners had convinced the unions of the merits of setting a floor on salaries. When some, such as Usdaw, which represents retail workers, adopted the minimum wage as policy, this led to its absorption into the mainstream.

The process for deciding on a party’s election pledges can be tortuous and unpredictable, as the story of the minimum wage illustrates. Party manifesto writers need to balance the interests of ministers, MPs, party functionaries and policy wonks, lobbyists and interest groups, the party membership and finally – maybe most importantly – the public. A strong manifesto can set the tone and the policy direction of the country for decades, but a forgettable manifesto – worse still, a bad one – can leave a political party weak and open to attack, or hostage to fortune in government.

“A manifesto is not a policy document, it’s a political document,” John McTernan, a former special adviser to Tony Blair, tells Spotlight. “It’s a document which gives you a high-level sketch, which is sufficiently structured to give you a mandate, but sufficiently free to allow you to determine the way in which you implement it.”

For civil servants a party’s manifesto – particularly if the opposition is expected to win – is one of the few guidelines to what the next government may expect from them. Even then, things are never entirely clear. Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, complained that the civil service had taken parts of Labour’s 1997 manifesto too literally. As per a 2009 report from the Institute for Government think tank, civil servants did not understand “that pledges in the election manifesto and in earlier documents had been drafted in part for internal party and electoral reasons, and were compromises and deliberately fudged. So Labour ministers and advisers had to tell civil servants what the real priorities were.”

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In practice, McTernan says, a manifesto is not read beyond journalists, interest groups and academics, but it sits behind promises made during an election campaign. These pledges are symbolic and aimed at voting groups or individuals. They show intent, not detail.

“It’s all quite opaque,” says Paul Richards, another former Labour special adviser, “but there is an overt process and there is a behind the scenes process.” Manifestos often leave the details vague on purpose, Richards explains. “Then the details can be filled in when you actually start to bring the legislation forward.” Take the 2007 smoking ban. A vague promise to outlaw smoking in the 2005 Labour manifesto ended up being much tougher and far-reaching than intended, mainly because of pressure from interest groups.

[See also: Britain Predicts]

A manifesto shows intent to “the system” – meaning government, business, and the voluntary sector – but it also forms the basis of a government’s “contract with the people”, says Kirsty NcNeill, another former Labour special adviser and now a parliamentary candidate. It is the justification for why you can spend the public’s money. Recent governments (particularly Boris Johnson’s) ended that convention by routinely breaking manifesto promises, she claims.

Policy is a nebulous term for McNeill because it covers “myriad” things, but manifesto pledges serve six very specific purposes, she explains. The most fundamental of these is to present the kind of policy that sets out the terms of a party’s project over a decade, such as national renewal. A second type of policy shows that a party is “capable of delivery” on those aspirations, for example reform of the public sector.

Then there’s illustrative policy, or “stuff for the [comms] grid” as McNeill describes it. Such policies are “beacons” on the way to that bigger project (such as national renewal, or GDP growth). They are not transformative in themselves, but part of that cumulative impact. Smaller school class sizes are one example.

Fourth is “defensive policy”, which shores up those areas where a party is traditionally perceived as weak or vulnerable. For Labour this has often included crime and the economy; the Conservatives, on the other hand, are usually vulnerable on healthcare and education. Fifth is policy that is about “owning the future”, explains McNeill. It’s not going to make headlines necessarily or be a big part of the manifesto, but it signals to concerned groups and experts that you’re a serious party of government. Action on anti-microbial resistance or space governance are examples of this, says McNeill.

And finally, there’s a new category of policy that she described as user-designed. Such pledges have come from outside the party through people who have experience of what the policy is meant to address. “It’s a sign that real experts have finally had their say,” says McNeill.

[See also: The 2023 May local elections – what to watch out for]

The small matter of an unexpected election can upend the established process of manifesto development. In 2019 Boris Johnson had only been in power a few months when a snap election was called. Time was short, but Rachel Wolf, co-author of the Conservative manifesto, recalls that the basic policy approach had already been decided months before the polls opened in December. The banner pledges were in place by the Conservative Party conference in October, “Get Brexit Done” being the most memorable.

“My strong impression is that our process was relatively open and collaborative,” Wolf says. This contrasted with 2017, another surprise election, when the manifesto was closely guarded and the former prime minister, Theresa May, suffered as a result. Several manifesto promises, including on social care and repealing the foxhunting ban, were torn apart by the press and civil society groups when they became public.

For Andrew Fisher, the nightmare scenario of the 2017 election was that Labour’s manifesto was leaked before it had been finalised. “We knew what policies we wanted to be the core of the manifesto – broadly what Jeremy [Corbyn] stood on in 2015, when he became leader,” Fisher says. The process began properly once Corbyn had seen off a leadership challenge in September 2016. Fisher took the lead as executive director of policy, working under the assumption that an election would probably take place in 2020.

Fisher’s team conducted opinion polls and consulted with shadow ministers to ensure they were on board with headline policies. Then, according to Fisher, there was effectively a “lull” up to the point when May called a snap election in April 2017. “I pretty much started with a blank sheet of paper, except for these ten policy idea frameworks that we had polled on,” he said. The advantage was that his team knew what played well with the public, including Conservative voters, on issues such as public ownership, tax reform and welfare spending. From there, the shadow ministerial teams drafted their chapters with Fisher’s team co-ordinating.

In the Labour Party, a manifesto needs to pass a “clause five” meeting, where members of Labour’s National Executive Committee, shadow cabinet and senior trade union representatives agree that the draft complies with party policy (even if there are areas of disagreement). In 2017 Fisher’s draft manifesto was leaked before that meeting, which he remembers as being “incredibly stressful”. However, the leak turned out to be quite positive, with the extra media coverage of key policy proposals and scrutiny registering well with the public. “I guess whoever did leak it, thanks!” says Fisher.

[See also: Labour is on course for a majority at the general election]

Alongside minsters, MPs, and advisers, think tanks are major sources of policy thinking, influencing ideas throughout the manifesto process.

“We had probably had about 20 or 25 people from the wider conservative think tank world sitting around the cabinet table,” recalls the MP Danny Kruger, who was involved in drawing up the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto.

“Everyone had the opportunity to pitch in their ideas, and I believe that was the first time it had ever really been done in that way, which is surprising,” he says. They also fielded suggestions from ministers, MPs and party members through the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF). “It’s all done quite fast and getting the CPF, getting the parliamentary party and then all of these other stakeholders like ministers and think tankers – it was quite an exercise,” says Kruger.

This work, says McTernan, is for one thing, and one thing only – the manifesto launch. It is a “document for one day”, he says. All that matters is approval from journalists and the experts they call to see if the policies add up.

In any case, whatever ends up in a manifesto is not binding, notes Catherine Haddon from the Institute for Government. “There’s been a lot of talk, particularly around Brexit issues, about how binding they are as a mandate from the people, but actually there is plenty of room for manoeuvre,” she says.

The key question is how parties can make those pledges mean something in the long term. “What we haven’t really figured out,” she adds, “is how to translate manifesto commitments into a programme for government that allows government to work effectively.”

[See also: Have the Conservatives already lost the next election? With Andrew Marr and David Gauke]

This piece first appeared in a Party Policy special Spotlight print issue. Read it here.

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