2001’s “quiet landslide” was the most boring General Election in recent history, if not ever. It was clear that nothing was really going to change, despite attempts to insist otherwise. Labour lost a grand total of six seats and the Parliament was returned for all intents and purposes in exactly the same manner as had existed before. It left people thinking, what was the point of all that?
2017 has stirred similar responses from pundits and the public. Theresa May will win, Labour will lose (probably badly) and we will all move on after June 8th. But the fanfare around the launch of the Conservative and Labour manifestos has suggested an underlying interest in this election that contradicts the feelings of inevitability.
While the result is clear, there are fundamental underlying changes in heartland votes, including distribution by class, and policy positions, as Labour lurch to the left and the Conservatives lurch leftwards too…
But these lurches in policy have been outlined in increasingly cumbersome manifesto documents that have been launched with much chutzpah. It leads me to ask: do people really care and, aptly, what was the point of all that?
Manifestos have been increasing in length and self-aggrandisement for years. The Conservative manifesto, launched yesterday, was just over 30,000 words. That made the document the second longest in its party’s history (after 2015). Labour’s manifesto this year was longer than its 1983 ‘suicide note’.
So, do they matter? The manifestos in 1951 were not much longer than a pamphlet. The famous Labour government of 1945, which brought us the NHS, had a 5,000 word manifesto. The country is more complicated now, so there is more to include, but the fact the Tories mentioned ‘strong’ 84 times and ‘Europe’ only 58, points to a realisation that manifestos are a small part of the campaign, not leading elements of it.
Instead, manifestos have morphed into documents that seek to reinforce a prevailing campaign narrative, rather than simply outline policies.
In the political bubble, manifesto commitments are important because they point to directions the campaign is likely to take, and even parties who lose the election may well have some of their better ideas stolen by the future government.
Corbyn supporters have taken solace in the fact that many of his policies, polled in isolation, are popular. What they fail to recognise is that the same is true for policies deemed to be ‘hard right’, such as moves to curb immigration and scrap benefits if people refuse employment.
But for the average voter, manifestos on the whole are next to useless. I would estimate that a tiny minority of eligible voters will sit down and read the Conservative manifesto from start to finish. In and of themselves, as coherent documents, they will change the polls not a single bit.
I would concede, perhaps, that reporting of single policies or changes in campaign positions may well resonate to a swithering few, but this is also the case when policies are announced before the manifestos have been released.
Now, I’m not saying that they are defunct. Instead, they are vitally important when it comes to that mythical ‘mandate’ and holding governments to account for their actions. But for campaign purposes, in their current form, manifestos are almost pointless.
Instead, let’s get back to manifestos that are short but sweet. Documents that outline headline policies and don’t insist on bashing the opponent over the head 70 times with dull and repetitive campaign rhetoric.
If we want to have proper policy debates, and elections of substance and forward thinking, let’s try and get to a stage where manifestos are open, accessible and not the daunting tomes that we have to struggle through today.
A change of this manner would allow for greater scrutiny of policies; would prevent politicians over-promising on policies that they cannot possibly achieve (think immigration targets); and allow the manifesto to become a leading part of genuinely policy focused campaigns.
In our history, the shortest manifestos have often contained the most radical, progressive ideas that changed our country fundamentally. A return to that would not just help our politics but would help society too.
Lyle Hill is an Associate at Charlotte Street Partners. He joined the team in August after graduating from the University of Cambridge with a degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences. At university, he was active in political societies, organising speaking events and debates for students and academics. He also dabbled in policy, contributing and editing policy papers for student-run think tanks. Lyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org