How to write a manifesto: don’t be too clever

April 21, 2017

This article appeared on Times Red Box

Parties have to write manifestos, promote them, and defend them – and then, should they win, deliver them. Having worked on a number of manifestos as a departmental adviser in Whitehall, I strongly suggest that everyone writing manifestos very quickly at the moment should bear in mind that the content they will produce is more likely to become a source of unexpected liability than an asset yielding political benefits. The safest bet, therefore, is to go for gilded banality illustrated with plenty of abstract nouns.

Few people read manifestos, and most of those who do will be hostile — searching for potential inconsistencies, and hostages to fortune. This is a practical truth that informs most Conservative manifestos, but often eludes Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green drafters.

Some ground rules

1) Ideally, your manifesto should set out a persuasive and optimistic direction of travel, rather than a set of detailed policy proposals and targets. You should always keep one eye on what it might be like when what you’ve thought of as an “interesting idea” is unexpectedly scrutinised at a press conference, a fortnight before polling day. Every one of your propositions should be backed up with detailed briefing material, held in reserve in order to explain and exemplify the points you’ve made.

2) Decide if you are writing a manifesto to get into government or to govern effectively; these are not always the same thing. Policies designed to appear to particular groups of voters may not be always economically rational or affordable but you will still have to deliver them afterwards.

3) As a general rule, you should avoid numerical targets. These usually turn out to be either too difficult to achieve, or a source of perversity and distortion that deforms the public service they are intended to improve.

4) You should also avoid fiscal targets. These have traditionally been used by parties to build their credibility in relation to the public finances — but there has usually been little economic rationale behind their setting. They have been honoured more in the breach than the observance, and facilitate a fatuous public debate about missed targets, and whether policies are costed or uncosted. This is a debate that obscures the principal questions that need to be considered regarding the efficiency of public expenditure, and its cost and benefit.

5) The whole range of public policy must be name checked in your manifesto — to avoid suggestions that any special concern has been overlooked. This includes mental health, the arts, constitutional reform, the health service, defence, fishing and badgers.

6) It will help if you include some sensible benign initiatives, which appear helpful and reasonable, but involve little expenditure. These can be invoked when candidates and party leaders take part in discussions and events during the election campaign.

The importance of being economically informed

A specific challenge is posed for current Conservative ministers. In government, these ministers will have access to a great deal of advice on issues such as taxes and benefits. Once that civil service advice is withdrawn during the election campaign, they will be on their own. Although supporters including businesses will be able to provide them with plenty of sources of advice on the economy, they will rarely have much detailed information about tax, benefits, and how changes in the system might affect numbers of individuals and households.

In contrast, their Labour and Liberal Democrat counterparts will have access to help from academic researchers, and trade union research departments specialising in these issues. Conservative ministers therefore ought to ensure that they equip themselves with factual advice on these matters while they are still in receipt of it to give them the kind of mobile artillery that can be deployed throughout the election campaign.

You can’t rely on ‘weasel words’. Pin down your economic commitments

When it comes to spending, taxation and borrowing, my period at the Treasury taught me that the manifesto needs to tie matters down in a watertight manner. Weasel words no longer provide a party with cover and scope for getting out of tax commitments. Lessons learnt following the last Conservative manifesto show us that commitments on tax, national insurance rates, and the scope of the tax base must be pinned down and spelt out.

When writing your manifesto, it is best to recognise from the start what cannot be done. Attempting to be too clever can land you in the worst of all worlds — gaining great political damage for little revenue, which has to be abandoned under the pressure of the electoral spotlight.

What can go wrong does go wrong

I remember when, before the European elections in 1989, the then Department for Employment was at war with the European Commission on the proposed Social Charter. Sir Geoffrey Howe, then foreign secretary, pleaded with colleagues to put at least one nice thing about Europe in their section of the manifesto. Officials suggested that ministers could praise the Erasmus programme, which was duly recorded as something the British government welcomed and the Conservatives would support. After the manifesto had been printed but before it had been formally launched, Mrs Thatcher asked for a briefing on the legal basis of the Social Charter – at which point Treasury lawyers pointed out that we liked the Erasmus programme so much that the UK was suing the Commission over it. Thankfully, when Mrs Thatcher launched it nobody noticed the contradiction, even when on the morning of the employment election press conference the press reported that “UK loses in European Court again” – over the Erasmus programme. What can go wrong does go wrong.

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