Brian Monteith: Why manifestos make little difference

Theresa May launches the Conservative Party Election Manifesto. Picture: Getty
Theresa May launches the Conservative Party Election Manifesto. Picture: Getty
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Is there any value in General election manifestos to the ordinary voter? Is it really worth reading them as a useful guide before deciding how to vote?

After all, do politicians of all parties not abandon them whenever it suits; formulating a host of weasel-worded excuses from changed economic circumstances to insufficient political power as their get out clause?

Last week we saw three manifestoes released to the public, four if you count the Scottish Conservative manifesto as separate, and they all presented something different to inform the reader.

The first to see the light of day was that of the Labour Party, entitled “For the Many, Not the Few”, which is both audacious and ambiguous at the same time. Audacious because it makes many great claims of what Labour will do if returned to power, but ambiguous because while it would change the lives of the many – it would not necessarily be for the better.

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If there is one thing that comes across from its 128 pages it is that Labour is so earnestly “caring” that it believes there should be a policy for everything.

Its political solutions read like Britain through the Looking Glass, for it does not take more than a few paragraphs to know that it is other-worldly and simply will not work. In taxation, as the UK has cut its corporation taxes so the revenues have gone up; the Labour answer to this troublesome example of Laffer Curve economics is to want to hike the tax – which will of course reduce the revenues. The same approach goes for individual taxation.

All the manifestoes are riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. Corbyn’s Labour would renationalise the Railways, the Post Office and a plethora of other industrial concerns and yet Labour’s keenness to continue with the European Union’s Single Market rules and regulations would make all of those policies very difficult if not legally impossible.

As for the international companies that so trouble Jeremy Corbyn by avoiding corporation tax it is those EU’s rules that allow this to happen (costing us £10bn of lost tax revenues). So why seek to keep those EU rules?

For the Liberal Democrats what is most striking is how in the introduction the party actually concedes defeat, saying it will not go into coalition with any party but will instead provide opposition. There then follows a litany of spending commitments on education, health and infrastructure that conflict with their claim they would reduce the annual deficit.

The Conservative Manifesto “Forward, Together” is clearly intent on trying to capture the mystical centre ground of British politics. If you are looking for a small government with a light touch then don’t bother reading past the introduction. Theresa May’s Conservative Party is one that clearly believes it has to be seen to be doing things, what else can explain it being choc full of policies it didn’t have to list when it is so far ahead in the polls?

True, it has been brave enough to say it will means test the Winter Fuel Allowance, provoking Labour to be daft enough to say it will maintain it for Dukes and Earls.

My first General election was in 1979 and I have a fair-sized collection of the manifestoes produced from that time. For me there is no doubt that the most masterful is Margaret Thatcher’s first manifesto as it explained concisely what she and her party wanted to do but without making too many specific promises. Thatcher did not need to say which tax she would cut and by how much to convince you she would cut taxes. You had to take her on trust and indeed taxes at first went up before they came down.

A couple of weeks ago I argued how the Conservatives had to express categorically in their manifesto that the UK will leave the Common Fisheries Policy following Brexit if they really want to win the coastal seats in Scotland. I am pleased to say that they have essentially done that and, importantly said they will also leave the London Convention, which is a necessary step in that process.

This was not enough for the fisherman’s organisation “Fishing for Leave” who thought the wording left room for a behind the scenes sell-out – but that in turn made the Tory fishing minister, George Eustace, give a further public assurance the UK’s 200 mile limit will come under our country’s control.

This episode illustrated how manifestos operate, they may seem to say what you want to hear but they need to be read and re-read and then the authors need pinned down. Most people do not have the time or leverage to gain such commitments, but the Tories have now staked their position and it should be nigh impossible for them to go back on Eustace’s word. It’s certainly better than anything offered to fishermen in the other party manifestoes.

Manifestoes can lose votes as easily as win them. When it comes to those who already have their minds made up I would instead recommend three books from my own sagging shelves.

Labour voters should reach for Marx and Engel’s “The Communist Manifesto” to understand how what is now cheekily called Corbynomics has all been said before and, where it has been tried, brought devastation to the many and infamy to the few that forced such policies down the peoples’ throats. Liberal Democrat sympathisers should invest in Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” – a true liberal (tick), who came to Britain as a refugee (tick) and exposed in that seminal work how the belief that man can plan a better future through ever expansive government is the fatal conceit of social democrats that leads to tyranny.

For Conservatives I suggest a good yarn by John Buchan, maybe “Mr Standfast” or my personal favourite, “Greenmantle”? While undoubtedly light on political theory they hark back to those halcyon times when the British Empire was still seen as a force for good and Scottish patriots made the Union work to their benefit.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org.