Sunday, 12 April 2015

In an era of coalitions, is a manifesto just a dull work of fiction?

It might be the case that, on the morning of May 8th we wake up to a majority government with either Ed Miliband or David Cameron accepting a straightforward invitation to form a government, the other having conceded in the early hours.

But most people are not anticipating that.  In what still looks like a very close election fight, most are predicting another coalition, or a minority government having to make deals with other parties.

One of the interesting facts about the 2010-2015 coalition is the extent to which the final programme is unlike the manifestos of either of the partners.  The Liberal Democrats' "broken promises" are better known, but of course they were the junior partner and could not expect their full manifesto to be implemented.  The Conservatives too had policies that they lost in the process, such as changes to inheritance tax that are again on offer for 2015.

But the radical extent of the proposed (even the amended!) health reforms, the bedroom tax (or "removal of the spare room subsidy") or increasing VAT or trebling tuition fees: they weren't in any party's manifesto.

That's okay, because no party won the election.

Where does that leave manifestos today?

I listened to Andrew Neil making Danny Alexander defend the details of the Liberal Democrat manifesto on television this morning with increasing incredulity.  Who cares?  The sums may or may not add up, but there is no realistic scenario where they would be implemented so who cares?  The Green manifesto, or the Westminster manifestos of the nationalist parties are even more odd fantasies.  They might be wonderful, they might be robust, they will never be tested.

Is there perhaps a case for not bothering with small-party manifestos at all?  Would it not be of more use to understand their broad aims and aspirations, their key criticisms of the main parties and their main "red lines" in the eventuality of any coalition negotiations?

But of course, the pointlessness of small-party manifestos has always been a feature of UK elections, perhaps more so in an era of strong majority governments.

But is it now the case that the main parties are engaging in a weird sort of fantasy politics too?  They are worried that their figures add up and their policies are credible but not because they want to be sure they can implement them.  No, the reason for any concern is about whether they can defend them.  A theme I have explored before is that the message is driving the policy.  That's been true for some years and is a worry; but increasingly the message and the policy do not have to resemble to any great extent the actual reality of what happens.

It leads to the rather odd situation where the Conservatives, after preaching austerity and economic "competence", can start promising to throw money around like water.  The issue is, to what extent can a government be held accountable for their promises at election time?  If the answer is "not at all" (please comment either way!) then there is a danger that we are engaging in a bizarre fiction at present and, indeed, a deception of the public.

Of course, majority governments broke manifesto promises too, but as manifestos become starting points in future negotiations rather than real proposed programmes, so people are less able to vote for the ultimate programme and are less able to hold parties to account. And that has to be bad for democracy.  I am aware of course that turnout levels are higher in many countries where coalitions are the norm and the parties still publish manifestos, so perhaps my concerns are misplaced.  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts!

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