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Manifestos in the age of limited choice

Manifestos can be important. When in 1834 Sir Robert Peel read his from the windows of the town hall to his electors in Tamworth, he effectively founded the Conservative Party, one that could adapt to a political landscape changed by industrialisation. In 1945 Labour promised – and then delivered – the welfare state, a National Health Service and the nationalisation of crucial industries. By promising council tenants the right to buy their homes, Margaret Thatcher in 1979 showed an election-winning instinct for the aspirations of the working class. In the following election, Michael Foot’s manifesto was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”, although since its most radical proposal was the nationalisation of banks, we can now smile at that description!

Partly because of Michael Foot’s calamitous electoral experience, parties have become risk averse. They eschew ideology. The main British parties have crowded together on the centre ground. None will promise us nationalisation, prices and wages policies, entry into the Euro, exit from the European Union, or an independent Scotland. They may not even pledge higher or lower rates of income tax.

Manifestos are now a liability to be exploited by an opponent rather than a clarion call to voters. If the figures don’t add up, if promises of even derisory sums of additional or reduced public expenditure cannot be itemised, a party’s campaign can become bogged down for days. More helpful for the electors to make a choice would be to know from each party simply whether it believes that government should grow proportionately smaller or larger.

The manifestos in the period after World War II have often talked of economic crisis, but they have all been written on the assumption of relentless economic growth. That helps to explain why politicians have over-promised, leading us to massive levels of public and private debt. At the next election it will be interesting to see whether the manifestos recognise that stagnation may be all that lies ahead. Chief Secretary Danny Alexander took Jeremy Paxman’s breath away when, asked whether he would go into the next election promising cuts, he replied “Yes”.

At the next election you might think that the poor economic prospects make life impossible for the parties in the Coalition. Not necessarily. They can argue that they have been brave enough to court unpopularity, at least saving Britain from the plight of countries like Greece and Spain. Labour’s difficulties may intensify as the election approaches. Does the promise to increase borrowing and spending become more attractive or credible, as our deficits remain stubbornly high and our national debt increases?

The Conservatives have made their bed and must lie in it. But Labour faces the agony of choice. So too do the Liberal Democrats. It won’t be easy to write a manifesto that justifies their record in government by lampooning Labour’s alternative, yet leaves the way open for coalition with the Eds should the opportunity arise. And there had better be no pledge, like that on student finance, that requires them afterwards to say: “I’m sorry”.

We may have passed through trauma, but this is no 1945. No party will propose a brave new world. Voters may wish to judge the manifestos by their earthy realism. In that sense, the party that promises least may offer most.