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Michael PortilloBy Michael Portillo.

Although
the general election still seems a long way off, this year is one that will
really matter in terms of developing policy and shaping what the party
manifestos look like.

Manifestos can be important. When in 1834 Sir Robert Peel read
his from the windows of the town hall to his electors in Tamworth, he
effectively founded the Conservative Party, one that could adapt to a political
landscape changed by industrialisation. In 1945 Labour promised – and then
delivered – the welfare state, a National Health Service and the
nationalisation of crucial industries. By promising council tenants the right
to buy their homes, Margaret Thatcher in 1979 showed an election-winning
instinct for the aspirations of the working class. In the following election,
Michael Foot’s manifesto was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”,
although since its most radical proposal was the nationalisation of banks, we
can now smile at that description!

Partly because of Michael Foot’s calamitous electoral
experience, parties have become risk averse. The main British parties have
crowded together on the centre ground. None will promise us nationalisation,
prices and wages policies, entry into the Euro, exit from the European Union,
or an independent Scotland. They may not even pledge higher or lower rates of
income tax.


Manifestos are now a liability to be exploited by an opponent
rather than a clarion call to voters.

If the figures don’t add up, if promises of even derisory
sums of additional or reduced public expenditure cannot be itemised, a party’s
campaign can become bogged down for days. More helpful for the electors to make
a choice would be to know from each party simply whether it believes that
government should grow proportionately smaller or larger.

The manifestos in the period after World War II have often
talked of economic crisis, but they have all been written on the assumption of
relentless economic growth. That helps to explain why politicians have
over-promised, leading us to massive levels of public and private debt. At the
next election it will be interesting to see whether the manifestos recognise
that stagnation may be all that lies ahead. Chief Secretary Danny Alexander
took Jeremy Paxman’s breath away when, asked whether he would go into the next
election promising cuts, he replied “Yes”.

At the next election you might think that the poor economic
prospects make life impossible for the parties in the Coalition. Not
necessarily. They can argue that they have been brave enough to court
unpopularity, at least saving Britain from the plight of countries like Greece
and Spain. Labour’s difficulties may intensify as the election approaches. Does
the promise to increase borrowing and spending become more attractive or
credible, as our deficits remain stubbornly high and our national debt
increases?

The Conservatives have made their bed and must lie in it. But
Labour faces the agony of choice. So too do the Liberal Democrats. It won’t be easy
to write a manifesto that justifies their record in government by lampooning
Labour’s alternative, yet leaves the way open for coalition with the Eds should
the opportunity arise. And there had better be no pledge, like that on student
finance, that requires them afterwards to say: “I’m sorry”.

We may have passed through trauma, but this is no 1945. No
party will propose a brave new world. Voters may wish to judge the manifestos
by their earthy realism. In that sense, the party that promises least may offer
most.

This article is taken from Portland’s new
publication
Road to the Manifestos, which also includes contributions by James
O’Shaughnessy and Alastair Campbell.

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