We are now less than a year from an Election and there is much speculation about how various parties are going to do. Doubtless come the Autumn conferences we shall start to see policy proposals coalesce into manifestos.
It will be interesting (post “tuition fees”) whether parties are a bit more cautious as to what they promise or whether they will make “red line” statements that may inhibit any coalition formation.
I think any party would be foolish to say that they do not need to allow for the possibility of a coalition as it could lead to uncomfortable questions following an election – “So, Mr … which of these pledges are you going to ditch in your grasping for power? Yearh, we remember you making that promise ..”
But any party that admits the possibility of a coalition in its manifesto might find that admission leads to uncomfortable questions during the election – “So, Mr … are you saying that you don’t think your party is going to win? Yearh, let me ask you that again …”
But what should a manifesto – post tuition fees – look like? It’s not just a matter of policies.
I am a firm believer in the chain: values – principles – policies. A party’s values are long-lasting and from them the party derives principles which rarely change and from those values and principles arise the policies which are a response to a current political situation.
On rare occasions a party may “evolve its principles”, but if it finds that its values are no longer supported and no longer relevant it is time to shut up shop. If your values are fluid you lack any authenticity and the voters will not be able to rely on anything you say.
A party needs however, to be confident about its values. John Harris reports that one of our major political parties has sent an email to its members and supporters linking to a survey which looks like a masterpiece of cyber-assisted weather-vaning.
Item number six, for example, offers the words “Above all, I believe Britain should be…”, and you must choose only one option from “Compassionate”, “Diverse“, “Fair“, “Pioneering” (no, me neither) and “Respectful“, whatever that means. It all finishes with a note of thanks, and this: “In less than year [sic], we have a chance to kick David Cameron out of No 10 and build the …” – and here, digital magic inserts one of the above adjectives – “… Britain you just told us we need.”
The Guardian 2 June 2014: Labour’s fake folksiness and empty slogans speak of snobbery and stupidity
Another advantage of the values – principles – policies chain is that the values and principles can give rise to themes, a much neglected part of manifestos. Too many manifestos nowadays seem to be very much a collection of slogans and promises whose coherence is not always explicit. I would like to see more about themes in manifestos because it tells you more about the nature of any government that might be formed. One would expect a government to stay moderately faithful to the themes even if changing circumstances means they do not / should not stick to their manifesto promises.
During an election an obvious emphasis on themes (derived from deeply embedded values and long-standing principles) might help “message management”. They are easier to understand (and for candidates to repeat correctly) than pages and pages of manifesto policies and promises. If your candidates have a good understanding of the themes any answers to policy questions “on the fly” are more likely to at least have some consistency and authenticity. Candidates’ answers can refer back to the themes – which hopefully have more emotional resonance with voters than a complex policy promise that probably is not trusted anyway.
Themes are different from slogans. A good slogan may encapsulate a theme, but in recent years slogans seem to have become vacuous, simplistic and inauthentic.Within a party themes may be labelled with a single word or a short phrase (equality, enterprise, fairness, etc.) – but for external consumption they need to be more than a word or phrase.
“Cost of living crisis” is a slogan; “A Britain fair for all” is better but is still a bit motherhood and apple pie. “Making a Britain fair for all” at least has some hint of action but is still a slogan. It might be argued that ideally a theme becomes obvious from the way policies are grouped and introduced and does not need to be spelt out. So a theme may become obvious from a section in the manifesto devoted to a particular challenge that a party feels has to be addressed. For instance, “Globalisation” might be seen as a challenge and a thematic response might be around:
- how to equip the country to compete in this environment, or
- how to try to regulate it to protect the country (and others) from the worse consequences of globalisation, or
- how to insulate the country from these forces, or
- how do we dismantle globalisation?
So what sort of country do we want to see after the next election? Such a question is worth asking because we have two ticking time-bombs buried beneath our considerations. One will go off before the election (the Scottish Independence Referendum – whichever way it goes a new settlement with Scotland will be required), whilst the other (EU Membership) might go off accidentally prior to the election. These two issues directly challenge many people’s views of their identity and their sovereignty.
What do we mean by a nation – should it still have a meaning? Is it merely a geographical entity where individuals can accumulate their physical property or is it something to do with the communities of people who live or have lived within that piece of land? If it is to do with people, what is it that binds us together; what do we owe to each other?
Do we see the country continuing in its world role of premier league relegation strugglers – a sort of top dog that has lost its bark but still likes to think it can get its way (but will leave any group where it can’t)? What does it mean to be “international” in outlook but “post-imperial”? What do we mean by “sovereignty” in our modern globalised (or at least mutually connected) world? What duties do we owe to people outside our borders – either in foreign continents or possibly in the north of our “own” island?
How in a globalised world do we survive without taking our standards (of living, of environmental protection and of consumer quality) down to those competitors who are beating us on price?
Do we recognise that we owe anything to our planet – or at least to future generations of our species? Can we afford in the short-term (a few electoral cycles) to take actions that may/might/probably will “save the planet”? Can we afford in the long-term (a few generations) not to?
Are we frightened of the changing world or do we have confidence that we can not just survive but also thrive in this modern world? How do we manifest that confidence?
An unspoken theme of many recent elections has been the question, “do we want to be more American or more European?” – where “American” and “European” are short-hand for different political outlooks. I was first aware of this in the 2001 general election where William Hague was leading the Conservatives.
Hague seemed to be promoting a very individualistic self-reliant isolationist line – much like the Republicans (and some Democrats) in the USA – with little care for pubic services or those who relied on them. It was widely believed that the promised tax cuts would be funded by deep cuts in public services (Letwin’s loose language). In foreign affairs Hague took a belligerent view (wrapped in simplistic popular patriotism – “Two weeks to save the pound, says Hague”) of any international organisation that challenged his rather purist view of national sovereignty.
Blair on the other hand seemed to be able to voice a desire for a more communitarian attitude at home and a more confident cooperative attitude abroad which did not depend on “absolute” sovereignty – either of Britain – or of the nations in which he intervened.
Another theme bubbling under the surface of many elections is how to respond to global pressures – whether economic or environmental.
One response is to say that you can’t do anything about these pressures so you have to go with the flow of economic globalisation and not bother to try to respond to environmental concerns.
The opposite response seems to be to try to ameliorate the worst consequences by seeking international consensus to moderate these pressures together with regulation (if necessarily unilaterally) at the national level.
Within Britain the isolationist or distructionalist response is rare.
A theme which I think is coming to the fore is the challenge of inter-generational equity. The country is becoming “demographically older” with fewer working people supporting more retired people. We are also seeing young people struggling to find meaningful employment and becoming indebted earlier (but through payday loans or student fees rather than through mortgages). Consequently they put off home ownership and having a family.
A final theme that each party has to address is regaining the trust of the electorate. In previous years following the expenses scandal we did not trust politicians. I think the parties now need to realise that it is also a case of not trusting a political system that seems to fail to deliver or even have much influence over events.
Can individual party manifestos identify the themes that they think are important and then present their policies as proposed (but not promised) responses to the challenges of those themes? How will the media then portray them?