The elevation of manifestos is ridiculous – but they reveal more about a party’s priorities, judgement and competence than almost anything else, writes Alan Lockey
Imagine yourself a manager of a high profile football club. A well resourced club; one of the richest in the world. Unfortunately however, you now find yourself 2-0 down with little time left on the clock. The crowd are restless. The directors glower down from their place in the stands. The press are sharpening their metaphorical knives. Uneasily, you look to the bench and contemplate a substitution. ‘Yes! A change of tactics and you might just turn this around!’. However, at this point the supporters go ballistic. One of them, furiously brandishing a match-day programme, leans into your dugout and screams ‘you never spelt this out’. Meanwhile, your incandescent assistant turns to you in disgust. ‘I thought we’d committed to 4-4-2 for the next five years!’
Let us be thankful this is not how the beautiful game operates. Alas, when it comes to manifestos the more important game of politics does. There is no getting around it either – at one level the sacrosanct elevation of manifestos is utterly ridiculous. No other industry is so determined to bind the hands of its decision makers against changing circumstances. To demand it of politics defies the basic, apocryphal common sense of John Maynard Keynes, – ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’ – setting a standard we demand from almost no other sphere of human activity. That barely anybody actually reads them only makes it worse.
And yet manifestos emphatically do matter. Their political consequences can be profound. Indeed, it is entirely possible this whole election takes place because Theresa May failed to extricate herself from the fiscally short-sighted 2015 Tory manifesto and raise self-employed national insurance contributions to spend on social care. Equally, you could argue the Liberal Democrats’ apparent struggle to break into double digit parliamentary representation still goes back to their fateful 2010 manifesto pledge to scrap university tuition fees. In each case, more charitable observers might invoke the pragmatism of Keynes. Yet even at the time both promises were clearly called out as foolishly precipitous hostages to fortune; at once both the very worst in desperate, vote-chasing short-termism and a needless sop to activist fervour.
Nevertheless, their announcement, in the full 360-degree glare of electoral scrutiny provides the clue to manifesto’s enduring democratic importance. Because manifesto policy-making is not like normal, run-of-the-mill, mid-term policy-making. The short-term rewards are never so high, the long-term risks never so severe. That makes manifestos, for any party that seriously aspires to government and the maintenance of trust it requires, the ultimate ‘read my lips’ moment. For all their obvious absurdity, they therefore reveal more than almost anything else about priorities, judgement and competence.
There are two clear take-homes from Labour’s manifesto launch, the first of which stems from its attempt to cost every pledge. But what this noble neurosis tells you is almost nothing about what a Labour government would actually do – particularly given the economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit – and absolutely everything about broader political perceptions of the party’s economic competence. Look back at successful manifestos of yesteryear and you will find no similar insecurities. Nor, in all likelihood, will you see anything equivalent in the Tory manifesto. In fact, it may even, as with their 2015 National Health Service pledge, contain a few nakedly uncosted, multi-billion pound spending promises.
Now, clearly an unfair asymmetry is at work here. But what it also shows, as it did in 2015, is how Labour still desperately needs a narrative that can restore the economic credibility it lost during the 2008 financial crash. It has three weeks left to find one.
The second observation is that a party with over one hundred policies has forgotten Anuerin Bevan’s wisdom that ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’. Not even Bevan’s government could hope to deliver so many assurances, so the suspicion grows that the document was written without the expectation of ever having to try.
That sort of speculation may be best left to senior trade union leaders. Still, better to submit yourself to too much democratic scrutiny than too little – which is the great irony of this election. Jeremy Corbyn began the campaign promising ‘not to play by their rules’. Yet it is May that is the real Keynesian on democratic accountability. Time and again, she gives the impression her preferred manifesto would be a blank sheet of paper. That given the choice she would rather not play the game. But as with the ducked debates, this would deprive the public of one of its clearest tests of judgement. In other words, it would cheat the unspoken rules of our democracy.
The game may well be ridiculous. But refusing to play it impoverishes us all.
Alan Lockey is head of the modern economy programme at Demos. He tweets at @Modern_Lockey
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