Why Vote … – the other books reviewed

I’ve already reviewed two of the titles in the new seven book series from biteback: Why Vote Liberal Democrat and Why Vote. But what to make of the other fives titles – covers Labour, Conservative, Green, SNP and Plaid? (Although a UKIP book was also publicised, it never got published as UKIP failed to produce the necessary copy.)

Both the Labour and Conservative books are ‘unofficial’ in the sense that they are by prominent party members, but ones who have no official role in the party’s policy or campaigning decisions – Rachel Reeves, Labour candidate for Leeds West, and Shane Greer, Conservative pundit. Though the Labour one has a foreword by Gordon Brown (David Cameron declined a similar offer), the books are essentially why Rachel and Shane think you should vote for their parties. Interesting, but it means that – unlike the Liberal Democrat volume, which was edited by the chair of the party’s Manifesto Group (Danny Alexander) – you can’t read that much into the nuances and choices made in the book. That the first specific policy mentioned in the Liberal Democrat one is details of fair tax reform says something about the party’s general election choices and priorities; for the Labour and Conservative books they tell us more about what matters most to the two authors. Interesting, but not as significant.

The one exception to that is Gordon Brown’s foreword but that simply highlights the difficulty Labour has had in settling on a slogan and a direction. In it Brown repeatedly uses the refrain – “the change we chose”, trying to set up a contrast between a Labour Party willing to take action in the fact of market forces and a Conservative Party that would let them dominate. Regardless of the merits of that argument (and myself, I think it’s far more striking to look at all the changes that Labour, despite three healthy majorities, rejected or dragged its feet over), it’s notable that since the writing of a foreword dated even as recently as February Labour nationally has moved on to a different message.

Much of the tone of the Labour book is that of a popular textbook, mercifully light on jargon and with a scattering through the volume of a series of personal stories and endorsements, from individuals, Labour candidates and commentators. Unsurprisingly for a book by an economist, the economy dominates – as does repeated knocking of the Conservatives. Civil liberties get barely a look in and overall reforming politics is consigned to less than two pages of a 144 page volume. Electoral reform gets a full six words and much of the section on reforming politics is platitudes – involve young people more, have better expense systems – without any detail on the ‘how’.

In contrast to the Tory bashing by Rachel Reeves, Shane Greer is – at least initially – rather more gracious towards Labour, starting his book with the statement that, “It would be wrong to suggest that Labour’s term of office has been a catalogue of failure; that nothing good has come out of the last twelve years. Indeed, when one considers Labour’s record, it is clear that some tremendous things were achieved, such as civil partnerships and devolution.”

That praise is then followed by a list of criticisms, but it highlights a dilemma for Conservatives: if you want to appeal to people who voted for Tony Blair, does heavily criticising him simply put them off because you’re saying they were fools for voting for him?

Another dilemma is the question of quite what political philosophy underpins Cameron’s approach to politics. Greer has a good stab at trying to lay out a plausible set of principles, though they are perhaps more controversial than he appreciates. In particular, he dresses up traditional Conservative pragmatism as a modern focus on outcomes – that being what matters when deciding between policies.

But for liberals, process as well as outcome matters. Faulty processes don’t just undermine getting the right result – but they in themselves are wrong. Hence the need to judge a legal system not just on who gets locked up but on how trials are run. (A later five page section on civil liberties does though contain a range of individual policy proposals that most liberals would, in themselves, agree to.)

Shane Greer’s book is the most functional in style of the three main parties, having neither the varying authors of the Liberal Democrat one nor the individual stories of the Labour one. Instead, it is much more like an extended manifesto, with a large number of short sections covering a very wide range of policy. It means more policy areas are covered in this book, but at the cost of less of the arguing of the case for a particular party.

The Green party book, by Parliamentary candidate Shahrar Ali – is similarly an ‘unofficial’ version of the party’s priorities. This book is much lighter on details than the Labour and Conservative ones. Instead, it has longer stretches of prose aimed at persuading than informing on policy detail. Mill and Marx are discussed as is (a surprising number of times for neither a party member nor a hate figure) Ken Livingstone.

Although it would be asking an awful lot of any author to persuade me to change my vote with their books, the Green one is certainly the one that I feel gave me the least information about why I might want to change my vote. Even after nearly five pages on whether or not it is right to appear alongside the BNP, I wasn’t left much clearer on what the Green Party overall would do (the policy quote and the actions of individuals being at odds with each other at times) or indeed what the author would usually prefer.

The two nationalist volumes are more official in character, being penned by Adam Price MP (Plaid) and Angus Robertson (SNP). The Plaid volume clearly presents the party as being anti-establishment; somewhat reluctant visitors to Westminster and purely for the purpose of fighting Wales’s corner.

It is also the most homely, almost insular, of the series starting with explaining Plaid’s name and its variations. At times its emphasis on the internal makes it read more like an extended induction guide for a new member of staff than a manifesto for voters. When it is more outward looking, the volume gives a very heavy emphasis to public spending – with, for example, a list of pots of money dominating the section on Plaid’s achievements.

The SNP volume has the starkest section title in the series: “Ending Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol”. It is also the one that most frequently and at greatest length quotes its party leader. At times in the earlier stages of the book it feels like the annotated speeches of Alex Salmond. In addition, the book has the most detailed statistical section, where the financial basis for devolution is presented. Many of the numbers are controversial, and it is not obviously wise to use Iceland and Ireland as comparators for an independent Scotland, but there is the detail here to get stuck in to the debates. It then takes a fairly thorough ride through different policy areas, in a style similar to the Conservatives book.

Overall the series is a good one. It’s questionable how many floating voters will actually sit down and read one or more full books, but whether for such information, for party members wanting to learn more about their own parties or for others looking to research policy information there is much of interest in the series.

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