Ian Swanson: Broken vows aside, manifestos matter

Ed Miliband is hoping to sway voters. Picture: Getty
Ed Miliband is hoping to sway voters. Picture: Getty
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THEY run to thousands of words and are launched with fanfares of publicity after painstaking preparation – but hardly anyone bothers to read them.

The election manifestos, now being unveiled by each of the political parties in turn, set out rival programmes for voters to choose from on May 7, but history suggests many of the promises they contain never quite make it off the page and into reality.

And with all the polls pointing to the likelihood of a hung parliament and post-election bargaining, policy pledges are even more at risk.

So how seriously should manifestos be taken? Are they worth the paper they are written on?

It’s not hard to find some fairly spectacular examples of pledges broken – the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment at the last election in 2010 that they would “scrap tuition fees” was abandoned when they went into coalition with the Tories and voted to increase them.

At the same election, the Tories promised no top-down reorganisation of the NHS – before unveiling controversial proposals for exactly that just a few months later.

Despite Conservative denials in the run-up to the 2010 election that they would raise VAT, Chancellor George Osborne soon afterwards announced an increase in the standard rate of VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent.

Back in 2001, Tony Blair was re-elected with a manifesto pledge he would not introduce student top-up fees and less than two years later he published plans for that very thing.

And going away back to 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister for the first time, the Tory manifesto for that election made no mention of the wholesale privatisation which became one of her defining policies.

But despite all that, manifestos still play an important part in the electoral process, providing a focus for the parties’ campaigns, a platform to spell out their priorities and a chance to try to shape voters’ views of them.

Labour used their manifesto launch on Monday to present themselves as a party which could be trusted on the economy, with all their pledges fully funded, while pointing out the Tories cannot say where their £8 billion extra for the NHS will come from.

And yesterday, the Tories launched their manifesto and tried to rebrand themselves as “the party of working people”.

The SNP will have their turn next week, but it is safe to say the thrust of their message is likely to be the role a large number of Nationalist MPs could play in standing up for Scotland at Westminster.

If there does end up being no party with an overall majority and some kind of deal has to be put together, the manifestos of the relevant parties will become the starting point for talks.

In that case, policy pledges which politicians enthuse about over the next three weeks will suddenly become promises to be bargained away rather than commitments to be implemented.

There is no comeback for the voters who accept the manifesto pledges in good faith, until they get the chance to have their say again at the next election, although there is one partial safeguard – a convention that the House of Lords does not vote down a Bill which has been mentioned in the governing party’s manifesto.

But this week’s glossy brochures do give voters at least some idea of what the politicians are planning – even if they won’t stick to it all and will almost certainly come up with other policies they haven’t mentioned.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com