All change in the promise land

At 86 pages and 20,421 words long, the Labour Party’s election manifesto optimistically presents the general reader with a formidable challenge — and not only because of its crimes against the English language. The Tories went with a barely less ambitious 81 pages. Even then, both are tiddlers compared to the ‘White Paper’ produced by the Scottish Government ahead of last year’s independence referendum, in reality an SNP manifesto paid for by the taxpayer. It was 670 pages, a solid brick, bigger than most novels.

What are we to make of these documents, launched with such fanfare and media hysteria, but which few sane people ever bother to actually read? They are, of course, marketing exercises of ever slicker design. In style and tone, they are fascinating aesthetic time capsules — google Margaret Thatcher’s thrifty-looking 1979 manifesto, or Clem Attlee’s post-War 1945 one, with its huge ‘V’ for victory. The first two New Labour manifestos — for the elections of 1997 and 2001 — featured their handsome young leader on the cover. By 2005, post-Iraq, Tony Blair was nowhere to be seen. The Tories’ much-mocked 2010 ‘Invitation to join the Government of Britain’, bound and issued in hardback as if it were something one might voluntarily shell out for at Waterstones, was intended to recognise serious times in a society in which the old hierarchies were being flattened. The cover of yesterday’s release features Cameron, Osborne, Sajid Javid, and three female ministers — diversity is the order of the day.

The most famous manifesto of all is remembered for the wrong reasons: Labour’s 1983 offering was described by Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. In response to the same party’s 2015 effort, Gordon Brown’s former spinner Damian McBride said:

‘Forget the longest suicide note in history, whoever wrote this manifesto would have died of boredom first.’

Manifestos matter, of course — they are a pact with the electorate and are one way for us to hold the winning party to account when in government. But as our politics changes, so the classic idea of the manifesto will surely have to change too. It seems all but certain the era of two-party politics is over. The Coalition that has run Britain for the past five years has not been, as many first thought, a blip, but the new normal. After May 7, we are likely to enter a period of negotiation as the parties attempt to form another partnership — it could again be the Tories and the Lib Dems, or perhaps Labour and the Lib Dems, with additional support from the SNP. Few expect politics ever to return to its pre-2010 state.

This must have an impact on manifestos. It stands to reason that every party entering a coalition will have to compromise on a reasonable number of their pre-election pledges, and that the rest of us will have to get used to it. There are two very obvious examples from the last parliament: the Tories held a referendum on AV — much to the horror of their traditional support — to keep the Lib Dems happy, while on tuition fees Nick Clegg performed the most spectacular u-turn since Gene Hunt last fired up his Audi.

People will have their own views as to whether coalition governments are better for the UK than single-party administrations. And there are good arguments on both sides. But we must play the ball as it lies, and that inevitably means we have to start thinking about elections and politics slightly differently. First, the voting system will have to change, and become more proportional — First Past The Post is great for a straight shoot-out between the big two, but hopeless at reflecting a multi-party reality. Second, voters will become ever more tactical in their choices, aware that their X (or Xs, depending on the new system) has acquired greater power. And third, the manifesto will becomes less a statement of definite intent than a display of wares to be haggled over, more a hint at the direction of travel than a fixed map.

There is already evidence of this shift. In Scotland, at least, there will be an unprecedented amount of tactical voting as people seek either to put as many SNP MPs in the Commons as possible or to keep the number down.

Yesterday, Labour unveiled its 2015 brochure and it was immediately spotted that the party had left some wriggle room over its commitment to renew Trident. For one thing, the word ‘Trident’ was not used, and for another there was no pledge to maintain the four submarines that experts say are necessary for continuous at-sea deterrent. Given the likelihood of a large SNP presence at Westminster and that party’s opposition to nuclear weapons, Labour’s phrasing can be seen as a negotiating ploy.

Call it what you will: horse-trading, a pig in a poke, sinister backroom deals stitched up behind closed doors, or the perfectly reasonable give and take of a modern, pluralist democracy. It is nevertheless something we will have to get used to in an increasingly non-tribal, anti-top-down climate. Voters are more engaged and better informed, demand greater choice and more of a say. That’s the way it is in the rest of their lives, and democracy can no longer be immune. At some point our politicians — and our media — will have to catch up.

Chris Deerin