By Paul Goodman
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What should a manifesto be? Should it be an impressionistic sketch – all ideals, values, and themes, but with little hard policy? Or should be a detailed blueprint – a mass of whirring policy wheels and cogs? This was one of the questions that a panel of Mark Littlewood of the IEA; Paul Maynard, the MP for Blackpool North, and Sean Worth – the former senior Downing Street staffer who's now at Policy Exchange – and I grappled with yesterday. We did so at the invitation and in the company of the Conservative Policy Forum, the Party body charged with helping to draw up the next manifesto, under the charge of Oliver Letwin.
About 80 party activists were there, including Dr Spencer Pitfield, its Director, and Fiona Hodgson, one its two Vice-Chairs and a force behind the CPF's revival. The conference was, I would say, younger, less male and less white than is usually the case at party gatherings. It looked rather southern-flavoured to me – but then again, we were meeting in Bristol. Since the gathering contained a fair sprinkling of councillors, a lot of those present will have knocked on a lot of doors, and thus were well aware of the difference between having a policy that looks good on paper, and having one that will sell on the doorstep. The panel's brief was to lead a discussion on the next Conservative manifesto.
Which requires, at the start, a sense of proportion. In most campaigns, the Government wants to attack the opposition, and vice-versa (as will be the case in 2015). The manifesto's role is thus limited. This is particularly the case for the Government, since the election will partly be about its record as well as about the future. In any event, don't neglect the obvious: most party activists, let alone most voters, don't read manifestos. And a lot of voters wouldn't believe the manifestos if they read them anyway. I can't think of one manifesto pledge that has made a big difference in an election in my lifetime. The Thatcher council house sales programme picked up speed after the 1979 election. The great privatisation programme was merely hinted at that year.
John Strafford from Beaconsfield reminded those present that the manifesto of that year – the last in which we came from opposition to government with a majority – was brief, and I think the consensus was: keep it snappy. Those present seemed focused not only on our electoral base – including the social care needs of older people – but also on the northern and marginals. So the merits, for example, of continuing to take people out of tax by raising thresholds versus those of restoring the 10p rate were aired. Some would call it an agenda for strivers. Greg Clark would call it one for ordinary working people. Tim would call it "Conservatism for the little guy". But whatever you call it, that's where the conversation's going.