10 April 2015

A Manifestly Flawed Relationship

Political parties are preparing to launch their election manifestos to be picked apart and scrutinised by the public and media (and given whatever spin fits each groups particular agendas). Each manifesto will no doubt be held up and discussed as 'the' definitive guide to what this or that party is going to do to our country (with much bemoaning of what it will do to the -insert word most likely to enrage your particular brand of consumer- ').

Then, when the dust has settled over the hair of another set of secretaries and ministers, turning them from brown/blonde/black/red/etc. to a uniform tired grey, the media (on our behalf of course) will hound them all again, brandishing a battered copy of their manifesto and pointing to the 'pledges' they made and how they haven't stuck faithfully to what they promised to do, how they have deviated from their political holy texts in a kind of political blasphemy; and all this will feed in to a familiar (and to the many who prefer to be permanently enraged and indignant, comforting) narrative of broken promises, mistrust and failed 'all the same' politics.

But is this useful, or even, dare I say it, fair to politicians? To that my answer is simply, No. Actually it's more like, 'no of course it bloody isn't.' Nor is it even what we should expect from them.

Manifestos are formed, essentially, from a position of ignorance

Ignorance about the future to be exact, which to be fair is not the fault of political parties (unless you happen to believe in clairvoyance, in which case you're probably making your decision on who to vote for in a different way, like maybe how pretty their aura is). The policies and proposals that these manifestos set out can only ever be based on a snapshot of the current economic, social and global position we find ourselves in, and even that is a pretty nebulous snapshot based on a lot of predictions, polls and think-tank conjecture.

Our democracy is a representative one; we elect a representative to go to Westminster and represent us, our views and our interests, they are a kind of avatar for their constituents (and we should take more care in picking them beyond what colour rosette they wear). In parliament these MP's make decisions on our behalf, starting but by no means ending with who should be the first among them (the Prime Minister if you will) and the coterie of ministers who will form a government around him.

- I realise this may shock a few people who think we vote for the government and PM we want, but we don't and we never have done, that decision is actually the responsibility of parliament, not us (the fact we think otherwise is an accident of so many elections resulting in a majority of MP's from one party who, funnily enough all seem to support their party leader). This government is the executive body, it puts forward (nearly all) policy to parliament... which is where manifestos first put in an appearance. But if parliament does not need to form around one party, then it follows that policy does not need to come from one manifesto... and if manifesto's say different things clearly some level of discussion, negotiation and alteration will be necessary. -

But these arguments have been put forward before, they are used to excuse and defend against the inevitable and always present accusations of failure to elevate manifesto promises to the lofty heights of gaining the Queen's approval, so I won't go in to them again here. I'd like to posit a new argument, namely that this is not what we should be expecting in the first place. A 'here's one I made earlier' approach to policy and legislation is not in our interest, it diminishes our role in the representative democratic system our parliament is based on (which is not starting from such dizzy heights to start with) and it reduces parliament and politicians to nothing more than glorified clerks.

Government legislation and policy should be formed for the benefit of everyone in the country, from a position of knowledge and information, moulded by the input of expert opinion, those who it will influence and the views and circumstances of the society it will operate in.

A manifesto is designed to be used to attract voters who may agree with a party's core principles and ideology to vote for them, and to try and persuade other people as to the validity of those ideals and do likewise. Prior to an election a party's priority is to trumpet and promote it's own raison d'etre, to support its candidates and convince voters and the manifesto is formulated against this background. It is a calling card of sorts. Yet when a party or individual representative enters government their priorities must change, they are no longer the caretakers of their party philosophy but responsible for the entire of our society, the caretakers of a position and authority which stretch back in time and must necessarily extend in to the future. Government legislation should not be based purely on a single party's priorities (unless they can demonstrate that nearly every citizen of the country was fully behind them); recognition should be made of the concerns of those who did not vote for that party, for the level of support for other priorities.

Legislation and policy is also clearly going to be improved by using the full authority, resources and information and links available to a government. Governments should be about formulating policy responses to challenges and not just implementing previously conceived ideas (although of course those ideas can have their seed in policies and proposals conceived by a party beforehand), they should be getting input from the the various experts and bodies that represent the multitude of different aspects and areas of public life, like the unions, like the arts council, like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, like the CBI.

As mentioned before, when we elect a representative to parliament they are meant to be our voice in the running of the country. Their activities include: sitting on committees that scrutinise and provide feedback on what is happening in various areas of our society, reporting on how government decisions are affecting the country; holding 'surgeries' where the public can raise concerns and taking those concerns back to their colleagues in Westminster. They also represent us when they examine proposed government legislation, during the rounds of debate that it generates in the amendments that get put forward by parliament and finally in voting on whether to pass legislation or not. We have these representatives because to examine all of the information behind these decisions and debates, to work to understand these issues would take an enormous amount of our time, and it is clearly unfeasible for us all to do so on our own behalf. To assume policy must be implemented as set out in a party manifesto is to deny the important involvement of all the other MP's who were not involved in producing that party's manifesto, and all the people they represent.

The formation of a government should signal a new phase of policy formation, one that continues throughout their term (and looks ahead to future ones), responding to changing economic, social and global challenges. It should be formed from a dialogue with the various organisations that also represent the numerous sections of society and it should be given the opportunity to be scrutinised, commented on, reported back to the people, amended and finally judged by all of the public's representatives.

This after all is what we pay our politicians to do, not to sit back and pass on a pre-planned plan to the civil service to implement, because if that is all we want them to do, they are vastly overpaid.

And, in return we should understand and accept that government policy is different from party policy, that it has a wider purpose and that it must, if we are to truly live in a democracy, be the product of input from a variety of sources, not just the party or parties representatives who make up government. We should judge the government based on how well they formulate their legislation and how well they facilitate the involvement of these other parties as well as how successful their legislation finally is. We should judge our other representatives based on how involved they are in this process, not just on whether they vote for or against something we like or dislike (or in some cases whether they just turn up or not).

Most importantly (for now) we must recognise the necessary separation between party manifesto and government action and stop treating them as the same thing.

This is not to say the manifesto should not remain an important part of election campaigning. However they should in part return to the true and original meaning of the word, i.e. a "declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer." This combined with a kind of pre-government entrance exam, showing us the capability of a party to rise to the challenge of policy formation, to understand the direction that they take when doing so, the methods they use, how well they assess the economic, social and global backdrop, and how the priorities, principles and ideals they hold get translated in to meaningful and effective proposals.