Elections are strange affairs. For all the uncertainty inherent in a campaign the party machine is a highly structured operation. Coverage in the media, the political message adopted, the line of attack on the opposition, the visits undertaken by key party figures – all of these aspects are agonised over and planned meticulously well ahead of the event.
The last seven days were no exception. The third week of the 2015 election campaign was manifesto week, an especially strange phenomenon where political parties all scramble for airtime trying to convince voters that the ideas outlined in their programme deserve to become legislation.
Manifestos are both an irrelevance and a vital part of the campaign calendar. It is a truism that most of the electorate ignore party manifestos. Despite the considerable amount of money, time and effort that goes into producing the documents few voters will ever read them. Indeed, at the last election just over a quarter of the electorate admitted to reading one. People will at best be aware of the noise that surrounds manifesto launches, and even then they tend to absorb messages not from politicians themselves but from a media that translates political rhetoric into accessible anecdotes. On the other hand, however, manifestos are key to the political process. They encapsulate in one document how a party will act in power, the basis of the mandate on which a party will rule. They also play an important constitutional role. Manifestos allow the civil service to study the likely platform the next government will adopt, especially useful when planning a transition of power. And in an age of hung parliaments it is the manifesto that allows other parties to identify areas of commonality with potential coalition partners.
Historically, manifestos have been rather short. At first, they weren’t even documents in their own right. Often they were simply a printed copy of a speech delivered by an important member of a party. Take, for instance, the 1900 Conservative manifesto. The ‘manifesto’ was actually a transcript of a speech delivered shortly after the dissolution of Parliament by Lord Robert Cecil, then better known as the Marquess of Salisbury. Salisbury outlined just four issues – what he called ‘the gravest questions’ of state – and, unsurprisingly given his proven expertise in foreign policy, three of the four were related to external affairs: the problem of voter turnout; the question of South Africa, coming as the election did during the Second Boer War; the need to reform Britain’s military; and Britain’s continued influence in China. But it was short of specific proposals: the prime minister was keen to highlight the problems the next government would likely face but resisted the urge to outline solutions to them.
Brevity hence characterised the 1900 Conservative manifesto. But this was not particularly unusual. In fact, the majority of the manifestos produced before the 1945 election consisted of fewer than five pages. Ever since then manifestos have steadily grown in size and importance. At the 1979 election the Conservative manifesto contained about 80 pledges, many of which would come to form the central tenets of Thatcherism. By contrast, the most recent Conservative manifesto, launched by David Cameron at an event in Swindon, has over 600 pledges. Tony Blair might have managed to whittle his priorities down to five points that fitted neatly on the back of Labour’s credit card-sized pledge card, but today the party’s manifesto runs to 84 pages.
While few people today may end up reading a manifesto, watching the televised leaders’ debates is another matter. Thursday’s opposition contest, hosted by the BBC, attracted over 4 million viewers. The seven-way leaders’ debate, shown on ITV at the beginning of April, drew in around 7 million. Those who tuned in last night were, according to the Conservatives at least, treated to a glimpse of how messy the post-election coalition talks will likely be should Labour find itself in a position to negotiate a centre-left coalition. For Ed Miliband, the event was a chance to criticise Cameron for failing to turn up and defend his record in office. Miliband doubtless embarked on a high-risk strategy by taking part in the debate, but it probably paid off. The Conservatives had hoped that the SNP, Plaid and the Greens would attack the Labour leader from the left, while UKIP leader Nigel Farage would do so from the right. As it turned out, Miliband was serious, sincere and statesmanlike. A snap poll conducted on the night also declared Miliband the ‘winner’.
Like manifestos, however, last night’s debate is unlikely to make much difference to the outcome of the election. It is worth restating what I’ve said before: the debates will probably decide the nature and framework of the campaign but not the final result. Political parties pour plenty of cash, resources and manpower into preparing their manifestos, as they do with the leaders’ debates, but chances are they are whistling in the wind. And it is perhaps this more than anything else that explains both the still considerable voter disenchantment in politics and also the political stalemate that the polls suggest will emerge from the 7 May vote.