Who are Manifestos for?

“This manifesto is inspired by you”. This is not from the “created by Boots” range but is in the forward to Labour’s manifesto, released yesterday.  Whether the typeface is blue Castle or red Bliss the message of the 2015 manifestos will be: it’s not about us, it’s about you.

Political manifestos have never really been about detailed plans for government and the emotive tone-setting is nothing new. But the “your story” approach does feel like a new normal for UK politics. The 2010 Conservative manifesto –more instaCam than CCHQ- read like a Storify timeline, mixing infographics with in-their-own-words testimonies by supporters like “Shaun, a youth worker from Hammersmith”. Along with the sweepstakes-style headline “An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain” the manifesto was an attempt by the nasty party to re-brand itself as a movement committed to open government and  trendy digital things.

Where the Tory’s  2010 scrapbook featured 5 ordinary working people Labour’s new manifesto has 14, with photos ranging from “Lesley, physicist” and “Bhavesh, barber” to a motley crew of mechanic apprentices wielding heavy duty spanners. Think tankers and politicos dwell on the protean policy details but at best manifesto words are at a two-step remove from their audience. The text is there for commentators to draw on but it is unsuited to our current digital ecology of shareable and visually striking content .

And here comes the paradox. These manifestos are about us but we don’t actually read them. We receive them in bite sized forms and are exposed to some of their imagery. They function as a kick-start gimmick to the campaign. Like the Tory’s “invitation to government”, Labour’s manifesto is caveated with a perception-busting rebrand –a “Budget Responsibility Lock” for a fiscally competent party.

In times that are less politically tribal and where information is more accessible and independently verifiable the manifesto emerges as a relic of elections past. Sites like vote for policies  provide more personalised spaces for the floating voter. Functioning as a kind e-harmony for politics, the site match-makes users to the policy areas of the 7 main parties. Generally a person’s views correspond to the policies of 2 or 3 different parties, suggesting that coalition politics isn’t so much a momentary aberration but the best fit for our contemporary needs.

It is of course important for our democracy that the parties are held to account for their promises. But it is not obvious why the manifesto as we currently know it is best placed to function as such a pledge. In an age of coalition politics it is too easy for one partner to write off their U-turns as the necessary compromises of power. But we do need statements of vision .The first political manifesto is thought to be Robert Peel’s 1834 Tamworth Manifesto. It reads as a powerful statement of how one man’s beliefs inform the vision he has for his country.  Peel is wide-ranging and touches on the long term issues facing civil institutions as well as his more immediate intentions. He acknowledges that not everyone in his party will agree him- which partly explains why collective party manifestos often fudge big ideas and vision.  In Britain today we need such declarations of long term vision. Rather than showing us images of ourselves –or what pollsters and campaign spin doctors think we are- we need images of the people who want to lead the country.

Gerard Corvin

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