With apologies to the songwriting team of Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone, who wrote Mona Lisa, as most excellently performed by Nat King Cole,
Manifesto, manifesto, MPs adore you…
Something’s been bugging me since 2010′s general election, and the formation of the coalition government.
Now, fair enough, many things have bothered many people, including the arguable destruction of the NHS, the abandonment by both government parties of various pledges, the callous attempt to dismantle the welfare state, an austerity programme that isn’t working and an ever-growing social division that has been created and deepened either by incompetence, apathy or cruelty.
Further, the apparent wilful unwillingness of the government to acknowledge the harm of its policies and the austerity programme in its current form goes beyond normal lack of decency and well into the realm of negligence.
But yes, while all of those are important… They’re for discussion on another day. That’s not what’s been bugging me, at a low level admittedly, for almost three years. Before I get to that though, let’s address some myths that seem to have arisen since May 2010, myths that say – for the main part – far more about ignorance than incompetence.
And it’s specifically ignorance (or possibly naiveté, I’ll grant you) about the constitutional arrangements for government in the UK I’m talking about.
1. No-one elected this government. To be precise, no-one elects any government in the United Kingdom. I haven’t had any part in electing any government in my lifetime. And nor have you. What you’ve done is helped elect an MP. What we do, individually, in constituencies all over the country (or up to four countries, if you want to argue the point) is elect members of Parliament, who may – not will – then go on to form a government. But the voters do not get to decide who’s in the government. The Prime Minister does that by selecting ministers. A backbench MP of the governing party is no more a member of the government than a backbencher of the main opposition party. Hell, the voters don’t even get to decide which is the governing party, which brings me on to myth 2.
2. The leader of the party with the biggest mandate gets to form the government Well, yes… and no. It’s only since the rise of the whips who can keep control of backbenchers’ votes (by threat and by favours granted, withheld and called in) that this even starts to apply. What’s needed to form a government is the ability to command a majority in the House of Commons. That’s it. The Monarch will ask whoever can do that to form a government. Usually, fair enough, it’s the leader of the Party with the greatest number of MPs, but it doesn’t have to be.
3. Governments are morally obliged to implement their manifestos once elected. Really? Does anyone believe this? Seriously? It’s impossible, literally impossible, for a government to bring into policy every one of their manifesto pledges. Even if the government had a landslide majority, there isn’t nearly enough parliamentary time to pass the legislation necessary, if – that is – the legislation is to be subjected to the right and proper scrutiny that all legislation should undergo on its way to the statute book.
And no matter how important the legislation is, I’d be wary of anyone who wanted to circumvent the usual processes of scrutiny, debate, amendment and the rest.
We’re getting closer to my concerns now, by the way…
4. The Lib Dems broke their promises! Well, yes, they did, and no they didn’t. They broke some but not one very big one, one stonking HUGE one.
Many friends, and some pundits, made the following comment after the 2010 election:
“I don’t know what was in people’s minds when they voted for the Lib Dems, but I bet it wasn’t to put the Tories into power!”
This astonished me then, and it astonishes me now. Surely only the very stupid, the very naive or the very ignorant weren’t aware that the Lib Dems had repeatedly said what they’d do in the event of a parliament in which no one party had a majority. They’d said on several occasions, in interview after interview, that they’d first seek to enter government – in the event of a hung parliament – with whichever other party had the biggest mandate.
Now, fair enough, the Lib Dems left themselves a tiny bit of wiggle room, as they didn’t say how they were measuring “mandate”: by total number of votes cast, or by number of MPs elected. It didn’t matter: in the event, the answer was the same in both cases – the Tories had the biggest mandate, by some way.
Not only that, it was very, very likely before the election that the Conservatives were going to be in that position: all the polls pointed to a hung parliament with the Tories having the most MPs. You don’t like that the Tories had the biggest mandate? Sorry, feel free to blame who you like for that, but please don’t be stupid enough to deny it.
5. The Lib Dems had no mandate to do what they’ve done Yes, the Lib Dems voted for (and did) things in government that they said they wouldn’t before election. You know what? They had every right to do so – the coalition agreement gave them that right. See above, but just for the record – there’s no obligation for a government to implement their manifesto. In fact, looking back over my lifetime, I can’t remember a single government that’s even managed to legislate for a majority of their manifesto, let alone all, or nearly all, of it.
6. The Lib Dems gave up everything and the Conservatives got everything they wanted. How can I put this? Ah yes, bollocks! I can think of at least half a dozen things the majority party of the government junked as a cost of going into government with the Lib Dems. Take a look at the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto and see how much of it made its way into the coalition agreement. Just for a start, the increase in the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million (which had been trailed as a central part of the Tory taxation plans) went the way of all things, as did various pledges regarding VAT, capital gains tax, no referendum on voting reform and a plan against the zombie apocalypse. (I may have made that last one up.)
7. The Lib Dems have no justification for doing what they did. Yeah, they do. They have the best one of all, and what’s more it has the advantage (strange for British political excuses) of being true. You ask Nick Clegg why he didn’t block Tory plans for this or that, even though it’s in direct contravention of the previously expressed policy of his party, and he’ll say one thing:
We didn’t win the election.
Often, he’ll clarify that by saying
We’ve got one in six MPs in the coalition; if we’d had more, we’d have had more power within the coalition, but we didn’t. And we don’t.
And you know what? He’s absolutely correct.
Now, one can certainly argue (and to my mind, quite convincingly) that what he did get for his party wasn’t worth it, that he prioritised the wrong things; that he should have sacrificed a vote on AV and fought for a guarantee about welfare; that he shouldn’t have bothered trying in vain for House of Lords reform, but devoted time and energy to preventing devastating NHS reform.
(I think you can argue against that, by the way, but I think you’d lose the argument. Convincingly.)
However, again, that’s an argument for another day.
But we’re now at the crux of what’s been bugging me, and it follows directly on from the above, from all of the above.
What is the purpose of a manifesto?
A paper, written for Essex University after the 2010 election, went into huge details about the purposes of manifestos and how much they mean to the parties before an election.
“Manifestos are important. They reflect the parties’ enduring values and policy programmes…
Utter nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. Let’s strip away the polite fiction maintained with an air of complacency and look at how they’re regarded today, by pundits, by politicians and by the public.
Manifestos might, just might, have been the basis for policy once upon a time, in the long ago. Now, however, they’re more like a personal statement that a candidate writes on a job application, hoping that he won’t be asked too much about it, and praying he can remember why he put this bit in, or why he wrote that bit that way.
So, again, I ask… what’s their purpose: what’s the point of election manifestos?
When a government knows in advance that it won’t be able to translate all of their party pledges into government policy, their assurances into statute, what’s their point?
When a government can blatantly lie, using its “mandate” to justify policy because it was in the manifesto, even though it was the universally acknowledged least popular item in there… what’s their point?
When a party can abandon almost every pledge in their election manifesto and can excuse such abandonment with a simple “we didn’t win”, what’s their point?
The answer is obvious: they have no point.
Not in their current format.
Read that again – not in their current format.
The biggest problem with manifestos is not that we have no idea what will be dropped upon entering office, it’s that we don’t know what won’t be…
I’m far less concerned by what a government doesn’t do than by what it does.
So, taking the very neat idea that a couple of the parties used in recent elections, that of the pledges on a card, let’s take it further… Let’s propose the following:
The manifesto of a party seeking election to office in the UK is from now on split into three parts:
(I) The dealbreakers: these policies (limited to six items) WILL be in any government policy document/coalition agreement; these are the items that will be translated into statute. If another party has a contradictory item in their list of dealbreakers, those parties cannot form a coalition without a further election, at which point different dealbreakers can be put to the public vote.
(II) The aspirations: the intellectual backbone of the party’s agenda, limited to twenty separate points. These are the policies that the vast majority of the party’s supporters (and potential voters) would like enacted in a world where the party has a secure working majority and “events, dear boy, events” don’t get in the way. They’re the policies that a government should get through: a Tory party might have a reduction in regulation in here, a Labour party an increase in progressive taxation, the Lib Dems, another crack at reforming the voting system. But – and it’s an important but – everyone understands that if a coalition is formed, these are the things that may have to go by the wayside. These are the negotiable points for a coalition agreement.
(III) The wishlist: the policies that, with a fair wind, a strong working majority, a weak opposition, a lessening of international tension thus allowing concentration on domestic issues, a party (and its supporters) would like to have on the statute books at some point. They’re not urgent, though, and they play no part whatsoever in any coaltion agreement negotiations; they’re simply not on the table. The list is unlimited in length, since no-one genuinely expects more than a handful – if that – to make it into debate in the House of Commons, let alone into legislation.
So now the voters know where the parties stand, as do the pundits, as do other parties, as do the rank and file of the parties.
The battleground for hearts and minds is concentrated, first to the dealbreakers, then to the aspirations. Everyone knows on what grounds the election is fought and – crucially – what’s up for grabs in a coalition. Voters make their mark knowing that some policies are sacrosanct, while others may have to be postponed this time. Fewer secret deals, greater transparency.
The only people who could possibly object, with what they’d say were perfectly valid arguments against this, are the politicians themselves who’d undoubtedly hate to have their freedom curtailed; freedom, that is, to continue to abandon policies with no fanfare, to lie to their voters, supporters and the general public.
We’re in the twenty-first century. We’re told by government that no public institution should escape escape modernisation and reform, yet Parliament and the formation of governments is accomplished in a manner that a 19th Century politician would recognise with nary a raised eyebrow.
We’ve already changed how they behave in office (with amendments to ministerial codes, reform of expenses), but in doing so ignored how they got there.
It’s long beyond time that we looked at changing how governments are formed in the United Kingdom and what we expect them to do once in office.