Jonathan Ford wonders why we get so surprised when parties break their manifesto promises.
This week, the Tory Party rediscovered its pre-election affection for gaffe and flip-flop. If there was ever an exemplary, nimble, glittering exercise in how to do a policy announcement, George Osborne’s child tax credit cut wasn’t it.
First you’ve got the announcement itself: on the hoof, with backbenchers and half the Cabinet in the dark. So it’s hardly surprising when backbenchers start grumbling, and frontbenchers are made to look stupid live on air, having to explain a policy that they don’t know or understand. And so it was when Tim Loughton, Minister of something-or-other, exclusively revealed that this shiny new policy was actually up for review. 24 hours later and Loughton was all of a sudden insisting that the policy’s fair, final, and the best thing since bread came sliced.
But Loughton was just the warm up act for Theresa May versus Paxo on Tuesday night. I watched and winced at the Home Secretary die on her arse, failing stupendously to convince on the details of the policy. And by the way, why’s a politician as adroit at mediocrity as May occupying one of the great offices of State, following politico-historical titans from Robert Peel to Winston Churchill? Could it have anything to do with May’s ownership of a uterus?
Anyway, this awful mess was awful enough for the Prime Minister to be wheeled out to reiterate the Tories’ commitment to the family. It’s funny how whenever a politician tries to reassure us about something it’s always a sure sign that panic’s fermenting fast.
And what’s particularly bad about this bungle is that it ticks all the wrong boxes. In one fell swoop, the Tories have pulled off the improbably ignominious hat-trick of incompetence, unfairness, and perhaps most damaging of all, dishonestly. Because their manifesto 5 months ago was curiously quiet about cuts to child tax credits. And Cameron acknowledged this the other day, saying how ‘sorry’ he was about breaking his manifesto promise.
I’m reminded of something that Sir Anthony Jay, writer of Yes Minister, once said about party manifestos: ‘Such a good word manifesto. Manifest means clear, and O . . . well, O means nothing . . . Nothing is clear. How true. But it does give us room for manoeuvre . . .’
And the truth is that the DNA of all political parties of all colours is programmed to break promises. Because for all political parties, their sneaking suspicion that they’ll go back on their promises post-election will always be far and away exceeded by their temptation to over-promise pre-election. And that’s because their raison d’être isn’t to keep their word, but to win power.
So while Labour politicians get all high and mighty and obnoxious about the double-crossing Tories breaking their social contract with the betrayed demos, let’s consider the last government’s record for sticking to their manifesto.
Here’s Labour’s 2005 charter, Britain Forward Not Back, dissected vis-à-vis what they actually did in power for the next 5 years. I only thumbed through it a couple of times, but I counted 33 broken promises in all – that’s roughly one every 4 pages. And I’m sure that there’ll be many more that I missed. This isn’t a Masters dissertation, so I’m not going to list them all, but what follows is a representatively dishonest taster:
p. 15: ‘In our third term we will build new ladders of social mobility . . .’ Only not according to any independent measurement of social mobility in this country. Nor according to Alan Milburn, the former Labour MP, who says that social mobility has ‘slowed down’.
pp. 15-16: ‘We will maintain our inflation target at 2 percent . . . We will not raise the basic or top rates of income tax . . .’ By the time Labour had left office, inflation was 3 and-a-half percent, and the top-rate of income tax had hit 50 percent. Responsible reactions to the recession, you could argue. And you could well be right. But the question is what the hell was Labour playing at forecasting unforeseeable long-term macroeconomics in its campaign literature?
p. 18: ‘The Labour Government backs manufacturing . . . we will continue to do so.’ Except for those one million manufacturing jobs that were lost during Labour’s 13 years.
p. 33: ‘. . . harder A-level questions to challenge the most able . . .’ ‘I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever that absolute A-level standards have fallen’, says Sir Peter Williams, Labour’s former Education Czar.
pp. 60-61: ‘We are . . . halving the number of quangos . . .’ After Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, public spending on quangos increased by £10 billion.
p. 72: ‘Companies will no longer be able to force people to retire before the age of 65 . . .’ And yet, Age Concern and Help the Aged say that 100,000 people were forced to retire against their will in 2009 alone.
p. 75: ‘We will end child poverty, starting by halving it . . . by 2010-11.’ In 2008, the Department of Work and Pensions realised that they could no longer pretend that this pledge was possible. But not because Labour had promised something that they couldn’t deliver; instead, it was all down to ‘economic and demographic changes’.
p. 88: ‘. . . UK forces . . . will have the investment, strategy, training they need.’ Take your pick from damning testimony after damning testimony at the Chilcot Inquiry. How about Lt Gen Frederick Viggers, who described military strategy in Iraq thus: ‘It was rather like going to the theatre and seeing one sort of play and realising you were watching a tragedy as the curtains came back.’ Or Sir Kevin Tebbit, the former Permanent Secretary at the MoD, who said that Gordon Brown ‘guillotined’ £1 billion from the defence budget.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having a go at Labour. The Tories and the Lib Dems – especially the Lib Dems – will go forth and multiply their own broken promises in this Parliament, just like Labour did in the last. Because politics is merely the art of the possible, and party manifestos are the realm of fantasy.