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Why manifestos still matter

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)….

Political reporters, of course, have to wade through them, though in the era of the internet and instant 24 hour news some are passing judgement based on a skim read. Diplomats take a look at those of a party likely to win. Business leaders might try to digest the economic sections. Charities and causes will flick through to find bits relevant to them. You hope your politicians might make an effort although I am not certain many do. But as 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. Indeed, the tortuous process of drawing up your manifesto, the arguments and agreements reached on the way, are among the most important stages in politics. 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.

When we at Portland talk to our clients, we make clear that a good strategy should lend itself to be summed up in a word (think modernisation); a phrase (New Labour New Britain); a sentence (power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few) and a page (the famous five pledges) as well as in a speech or a pamphlet. That’s what the hours and days in drawing up a manifesto must allow.

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 the problems the Tories are having by failing to mention that they intended to re-organise the NHS again.

Or 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. It is also important for the civil service who use what it contains as a guide to the likely policy requirements of a new Government. As soon as the manifesto is published, they will begin working on legislation.

In the past, of course, the timetable for drawing up your manifesto was always something of a guess. You did not want to have your policies set in stone too early to provide an easy target for your opponents, or have the ideas stolen.

But neither did you want to be rushing to agree them because a snap election had been called.

This uncertainty has, at least, disappeared now we have fixed parliamentary terms. 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. That C word is so important. Neil Kinnock’s election chances never really recovered from the Tories demolishing John Smith’s shadow budget in the 1992 campaign, when attractive promises on child benefit and pensions were turned into a vicious and ruthless ‘double whammy’ ‘where’s the money coming from?’ campaign.

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 time. But we are now entering the stage when the Road to the Manifesto begins. Decisions made now, as the policy review progresses, 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.

The launch of the manifesto is a vital moment in any election campaign. Get it right and your campaign momentum can be unstoppable.