This beautiful spring morning with its blue sky and a light breeze, I decided to walk to the news agent to pick up the dead tree version of the newspaper rather than reading the digital edition on the iPad. On the way this blog post was forming in my head: how election manifestos are changing. Which simile would work best? Were they becoming more like a child’s wish list in a letter to Santa, or did they have more in common with a union claim at the start of collective bargaining?
At the shop counter I discovered the idea was less original than I had thought. The Guardian is leading the front page with Clegg denying the Lib Dem manifesto to be launched later today is a bargaining document. The headline is “Clegg: we will not sell out in coalition talks. Exclusive: Lib Dem leader says party will stick to its manifesto promises.”
In an interview, Clegg told the Guardian that five pledges would have “a near religious status”. The idea of a manifesto as the basis for theological debate had not crossed my mind.
The first pledge would mean that education spending would be £5bn higher than the Tories by 2020 and 2.5bn higher than Labour. That looks more like bidding at an auction than a matter for synod.
The paper continues:
The other pledges on the front page of the manifesto will cover spending £8bn more on health and equal status for mental health, increasing the personal tax allowance to £12,500 a year, a balanced current budget by 2017-18 and five green laws including a decarbonisation target for electricity.
The documents produced by the smaller parties have always been wish lists and bargaining points, but now need reading differently. They may be in coalition or offer supply and confidence support or provide ad hoc support to a minority government.
What are the immutable principles? Remember that many principles seem flexible at the prospect of a seat at the cabinet table and a car. What do they really want a lot? What are the sops to factions of their own party? What are designed to broaden appeal to the electorate?
Of the sops, the Conservative pledge of a free vote on repealing the fox hunting ban looks like a pledge to be thrown away. There is no chance that it could do more than waste parliamentary time.
And there must be a suspicion that Cameron would not be too unhappy if he was unable to go ahead with a referendum on EU membership and could blame others for his failure. That web has become even more tangled with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists demanding that any vote to leave should have a majority in each of the four states of the union.
In the Labour manifesto there is a pledge which matches that Tory plan for Trident renewal. A cheaper alternative way of remaining a member of the nuclear club would probably appeal to Miliband who would then have more money for some other long-term plan. What will probably happen is that the issue will be kicked into the long grass with a defence review whoever forms a government.
But reading manifestos in the new multi-party environment requires new skills or, at least, adaptation of old ones. But there are a couple of rules: The first page “executive summary” and the leader’s launch speech set out what they think will give them wider appeal. The real priorities and intent are hidden somewhere in the body of the document but they must deliver on the headline promises.
It rather reminds me of the days when trade union power in collective bargaining was under assault from the government of the day. How, I asked a print union father of the chapel, would he deal with the latest restriction?
“Easy,” he replied, “I would put in a demand for gold taps in the washroom and then get what I really wanted as a compromise.”