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Why manifestos matter, even if nobody reads them (and should we call them something different?)

Posted on 13 February 2013 | 12:02pm

Below is a piece published by Portland and Labour List yesterday. Among the responses I saw was one suggesting that the problem with manifestos is the word manifesto. It does seem remarkable that so few people are interested enough to read the programmes for government being put forward by parties who could form the government. If it is the word that is the problem, what word is better? Or, as we are now in a digital age, is it the format that is the problem, and are there other ways of publishing policy proposals that will engage more people on the substance of policy proposals and the significant differences between the parties? Over to you. Meanwhile here is the piece from yesterday.

Although the general election still seems a long way off, this year is one that will really matter in terms of developing policy and shaping what the party manifestos look like.

Given the amount of time and effort that goes into producing election manifestos, the number of people who actually read them is frighteningly small. Every campaign, parties make determined efforts to get them onto shelves but their sales hardly threaten JK Rowling or even the authors of well-known political diaries (still available in all good book shops)….

But for the millions of voters who decide the election outcome…well for the overwhelming majority, life’s too short.

That does not mean manifestos can be dismissed as vanity publishing. Their contents shape the campaign and, you hope, your years in Government. The decision to rule out a rise in either the basic or top rate of income tax before the 1997 election was not just critical in persuading the country to trust us on the economy but set a direction for the Government.

It also explains why the launch of the manifesto is a vital moment in any election campaign. It is each party’s day in the sun. Get it right and your campaign momentum can be unstoppable.

Get it wrong and it can be hard to recover – although we still managed to win in 2001 despite Sharon Storer haranguing Tony Blair outside a hospital, Jack Straw being slow-hand-clapped by the Police Federation, and John Prescott punching a protestor all somewhat taking the edge off our launch. So much for being a control-freak.

Getting it right means more than a manifesto containing a policy for every issue or interest group – a mistake Labour made plenty of times in the past. It has to be a programme with direction and coherence. A strategy for Government, not just a package of (hopefully) attractive measures.

Nor can you forget what is in your manifesto when you arrive in Government. Ask Nick Clegg what happens if you do. And what’s left out can be just as dangerous as what’s included. Look at
how Cameron’s party opponents use the absence of gay marriage from the manifesto to oppose it.
A manifesto forces discipline on sometimes reluctant MPs and party.

As we reach the halfway stage between elections, we should see the party leaders setting out the framework into which their policies will fit. Ed Miliband has signalled his intention with his One Nation speech.

Next he will have to work out detailed economic policy, something which the government has sought to make into a problem with their incessant ‘all Labour’s fault/mess we inherited’ mantra, against which Labour have not pushed back hard enough. But there is time to develop and communicate strategy and policy in a way that builds credibility.

Once the solid economic foundations are laid, the other issues can be addressed in detail. Governments have to develop and enact policy all the time. Oppositions have a little more flexibility. But we are now entering the stage when the Road to the Manifesto begins. Decisions made now will shape the final document and, even if the readership figures are low, its contents will go a long way towards deciding whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is Prime Minister in 2015.

A longer version of this essay is included in Portland’s new publication ‘Road to the Manifestos’, with further contributions by Michael Portillo and James O’Shaughnessy.

  • Disinterest amazes and frightens me regarding matters broadly political and social. I have relatives who are teachers in state schools who profess utter disdain and indifference towards politics, stating that it does not concern them. Intelligent people, allegedly.
    Social media has a great role to play in engaging people with their own politics – surely politicians should be actively chasing to engae the electorate at all times and by all means and through all media.
    Having travelled where voting yet alone any form of democracy was not part of life it does amaze me that those of us who have the hard won good fortune that we do are so ready to take it so completely for granted.
    Manifestos and voting do need to meet with and speak the language of the times in which we live.

  • Anonymous

    Think China or Stalin’s USSR with five year fantasy plans come to mind in an average brit elector with a vote, on manifestos..

    It means nothing outside the party political bubble, because it is all bluff and bluster, and a load of hot air, always.

    Best way to approach it is just say how things are at the moment, and where it is going wrong, with a strong suggestion how it can be done better. No need for all these late night last minute editing bollocks producing propaganda just and only for the media, as if parties even don’t actually like to admit it.

    It means nowt to the rest of us, and that is the gawd darn truth. Manifestos are bog paper, yes siree.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t object to the word ‘manifesto’. But they should be more easily available. I also think that one huge grid should be constructed which all the parties would be forced to fill in, not unlike the principle of a job application form. That way they couldn’t waffle and would have to provide honest answers to certain categories of question.

  • John Addy

    The Manifesto should be short and unambiguous John Prescott’s pocket cards that were used in Tony Blair’s first term were concise and to the point.
    Alternative name we are used to ‘Wish Lists’ on Amazon why not in politics it describes what is in the tin.

  • Anonymous

    Given the total breakdown in faith in politicians of all flavours perhaps it is time for the parties to re-think how they can engage with the electorate. As has been witnessed over the last 2 years, manifestos don’t count for very much once a party has ‘acquired’ power. The problem isn’t the presentation of the manifesto or whatever you want to call it; the problem is the way in which parliament and much of public life is run. Politicians need to grasp the nettle and radically change the dis-functional system that is functioning to suit them rather than the people they are supposed to be representing.

  • Di Baker

    I have just waded through the 2010 manifestos with a group of A-level students. I don’t think it helped inspire them much! They were all unnecessarily wordy, with much of little substance padding out some key pledges. I second KDouglas’s suggestion of a standard format which requires concise answers to set questions on key issues.