Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Manifesto Wars

With the Lib Dem manifesto launch this morning, all of the biggies are now out in the public domain. There is some ideological differentiation there after all - the Tories have enshrined antipathy to government expansion, and a belief in individual action, over the more centralised approach favoured by the other two parties. That apparent differentiation, however, is not quite as substantial as it may seem at first glance. Gordon Brown's manifesto included such commitments as giving parents the right to sack their headteachers (a truly terrible idea, but it's there) for instance. The Liberal Democrats are making it one of their major pledges to redistribute power "fairly among people". From the Lib Dem manifesto launch this morning, New Statesman political editor Martin Bright tweeted "So all three parties are saying: We are crap, it's over to you", which sums up the sense in which the parties are now trying to move the impetus for solutions back to "the people".

The first problem, of course, is that "the people" don't exist as some sort of helpful, collective organisation of common-minded volunteers with high political capabilities. They exist as a bunch of disparate individuals, the majority of whom have no interest in getting involved in anything beyond their own immediate lives, and who in any case are rarely equipped with the mental faculties to be so involved (television news has produced some truly wonderful vox pop replies over the last couple of days from your average member of the public - "Labour? Are them the lot that's in power now?" or "I don't do politics" for example. Facebook has provided "Nick Clegg? Is he our local MP?" from someone not living in Sheffield Hallam). The second problem is that on the biggest issue facing the country, the spiraling national debt and a plan to move us out of a deep recession, handing power to the people is hardly much of an option.

Manifestos are also far too full of hopeless jargon, intending to sound aspirational, but instead coming across as a poor substitute for specific ideas. Michael Crick identifies a classic example from the Tory manifesto which promises to "develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action". Nick Clegg's speech exemplified this sort of linguistic bombast this morning when he spoke of hardwiring fairness into society (What on earth is that supposed to mean in practical terms? How do you 'hardwire' anything into 'society'?), and then went on to talk of "turning anger into hope, frustration into ambition, and recession into opportunity". Well you can't argue with that can you? Sounds great, but what does it really mean?

The parties are naturally hoping their manifestos stand as a powerful and articulate expression of their highest political aspirations. The problem is, they want to avoid hard truths because the public don't actually want to hear them, and that leaves them fumbling around with sub-Obama sounding aspirations that no-one really believes in. In the end, of course, I doubt the election will be won on specific policies and promises; it will be won by the party and leader who just make us feel a little bit more comfortable and confident. That should probably give Mr. Cameron room for optimism.

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