Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. Follow Jesse on Twitter.
What should the 2015 Conservative manifesto look
like? I discussed this question at ConHome’s recent Victory 2015
conference. Of course there’s little use in trying to write a detailed
manifesto now, more than two years before the election. But there’s every
reason to ask the broader question of what the point of a manifesto is:
what it should be trying to achieve, and why.
Official party manifestos are a relatively recent innovation. When, at
the dawn of the Conservative party, Sir Robert Peel published the Tamworth
manifesto in 1834, it was a general statement of principles from him as leader,
not a party document. It was not until the general election of 1950 that
the Conservatives issued a party manifesto as such. Even then the document
made few if any specific commitments, though its overall thrust was clear.
The past two decades have seen a calamitous fall in public trust in
politicians, and a huge rise in interest group politics. Together, these
factors have had the effect of lengthening manifestos and encouraging the
political parties to pack them full of detailed promises. Fail to mention
some issue, and your inbox will be full the following day. Offer a long,
serious and thoughtful discussion of the issues, as we did in 2010, and it can
be hard to break through to voters.
The result has been a vicious circle, in which any deviation from a party’s
manifesto in office is treated by the media as a betrayal, further fuelling
voter distrust. On the other hand, a vast array of undertakings in the
small print of a winning manifesto thereby gain special legislative status in
the House of Lords under the Salisbury-Addison convention – even when they have
had no coverage or prominence in a general election and therefore lack any real
mandate. It is no surprise that few people seem to believe political
promises anymore anyway.
Meanwhile only a tiny percentage of the general public actually read a
manifesto of any kind today. That’s hardly surprising. The 1966
manifesto was under 4,000 words long. By 1979, this total had risen to
9,000 words. In 2010 the word count was around 30,000.
So why not take a different approach? We need to frame a choice to the
electorate in 2015. Why not do it through a manifesto that is short,
engaging, clear and focused? One that gets away from IOU politics and
addresses the key issues directly
- It could be the length of a
good, meaty magazine article, with detailed policy ideas put online (and
explicitly outside) the manifesto.
- It could be written with the
style and directness of a Charles Moore or a Fraser Nelson.
- It could make a single
argument tying four key Conservative messages together: economic renewal
(“Reform”), free institutions (“Ownership”), responsible individuals (“One
Nation”) and a helping hand (“Little Guy”). Tough on crony capitalism,
strong on support for entrepreneurs and small business.
- And it could blend a tight
focus on economic hope and social reassurance, with a broader cultural message
of shared values and national purpose.
Just a thought.