Does a political party really need a manifesto or… what is policy for?

On Saturday, I found myself in an all day meeting of the strategic body of a campaigning organisation, and I found myself thinking something that hadn’t previously shown a fin in the ocean that is my political consciousness – is having policy spelled out to the nth degree really a good way to run a society? Indeed, how many people care about the details?

I am a member of a political party, and therefore have more of an interest in ideas of governance than most. But, like most members of political parties, I have an awareness of our policies, rather than a firm grasp. Indeed, there are vast swathes of policy where I assume our stance to be liberal rather than being able to swear that they are. And if that is my position, then put yourself in the position of normal people, the vast majority of people who don’t, and probably never will, join political parties, for whom Westminster politics is about people doing things to them rather than a process of active participation.

What knowledge of our policies, or anyone else’s policies for that matter, do they have, as opposed to information? I differentiate between knowledge and information for a reason. Very few people go to the source for information, i.e. a Party website, and even if they did, how easy would it be to find the policy and, equally importantly, its justification? No, they rely on the media, on their social connections and on their gut instinct, in no particular order.

Let’s be honest, the media are almost entirely partial in their approach to policy. And why not, it’s a free media, isn’t it (a debate for another day, perhaps but let’s assume that it is)? So, obviously, most of the analysis of policy is done through the prism of the newspaper’s philosophy, or even less accountably, the prism of the individual analyst’s personal, and usually understated, prejudices.

And before we politicians get too self-righteous, how many political leaflets express a positive message, and how many of those provide more than a superficial justification for a particular stance? Not many – the tabloidisation of politics has affected us all. We put simple messages to the public, in bullet point form, couched in language that won’t scare people (unless we want to scare them, of course).

So, how much specific policy does a political party need? Detailed, prescriptive policy is in many ways a restraint, especially if it does not respond to a changed environment. What is unchanging, or at least relatively so, is philosophy, that underpinning of any campaigning group that lights its direction of travel, that guides its path. It is the thing that should be used as the yardstick against which any idea is measured, and best of all, it is something that allows flexibility in responding to an ever-changing world.

The emergence of intricately detailed manifestos is a recent development in our political history, whereas in ‘ye olden days’ we had causes, like free trade, or a land fit for heroes. And now, we have managers rather than leaders. Perhaps we need to look back, to the idea as politics as a moral cause based on a philosophy, rather than as an exercise in creating detailed policies that are seldom actually carried out in reality. We can let the electors judge politicians against the yardstick of an espoused philosophy, rather than against pages and pages of manifesto they haven’t read.

And you know something, I think that the public are waiting for someone to tell them what they believe in, rather how they will run things or what they’re against…

Mark Valladares is a bureaucrat, for which he apologises. He lives in a small village in the country where he has learnt to stop worrying and start thinking…

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14 Comments

  • Quote – “the media are almost entirely partial in their approach to policy. And why not, it’s a free media, isn’t it (a debate for another day, perhaps but let’s assume that it is)?” In an article about ideas and manifestos, that is an assumption that I would never make.

    As for – “put yourself in the position of normal people, the vast majority of people who don’t, and probably never will, join political parties, for whom Westminster politics is about people doing things to them rather than a process of active participation.” – I would say that the corporate sector, especially finance, dont have to join political parties to be involved with them, now that we have had 2-3 governments in a row who are keen to work on their behalf.

  • Absolutely agree with Mark Valladares thesis. And perhaps what we ought to believe in is the necessity of institutions to protect ‘normal people’ from the excesses of the rich and/or powerful. That, after all, was what the idea of ‘parliament’ was supposed to do right back (in England) from the time of Magna Carta. Of course who was ‘rich & powerful’ and who was ‘normal’ has changed over the centuries as has Parliament but the principle is still valid and, over the last 30, 50, ?? (make a choice) Parliament has become a total & miserable failure in that regard with the result that now dominates the headlines.

  • Helen Flynn 18th Jul '11 - 5:32pm

    It’s what I was banging on about in a previous blog. Defining what we stand for is paramount. The policy detail will not cut it with the vast majority of people. And now that we are in Government, if is even more vital that we take this bull by the horns, as we will not get the protest vote next time.
    Where do we start?

  • Sandy Walkington 20th Jul '11 - 12:46pm

    Belated comment. Mark is spot on. I just say that Lib Dems are about freedom, fairness, green, international and then illustrate those anecdotally – works for me and seems to work with the audiences

  • Daniel Henry 20th Jul '11 - 2:07pm

    I agree that we need a philosophy and narrative but I think there’s still a place for manifestos.

    1) Even an agreed philosophy can have multiple interpretations when it comes to policy. Agreeing policy before hand can settle expectations and save infights and headaches once elected.

    2) Some people do care about policy. It’ll be important to them that you have a plan and vision. Otherwise the rhetoric floating around the local press might be we’re a party with philosophical words but no plan.

    Tim Farron’s piece in “reinventing the state” pointed out that we have done great policies that ready appeal to certain people but we fail to communicate them. You’re right that communicating a “flavour” is important, but there’s a time and a place for concrete policy too.

    You’re right that a “how” and “why” should be included too, so as to integrate this policy into their overall image of us.

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