Are These the Manifestos Voters Deserve?

Today’s manifesto launches from UKIP and the Liberal Democrats means all the main parties’ wares are finally on display. But as the dust begins to settle on these documents, after so much fanfare, it is worth pausing to reflect on what on earth they have actually achieved.

The parties have used their manifestos for a huge range of purposes. They have been ‘weaponised’ to address enduring weaknesses, they have been employed as a desperate last-minute offering to the electorate, and they have been used as an attempt to change the topic of public discussion. But manifestos should not be media-oriented cudgels, inserted into a campaign to shore up the vote in a section of the public or to provide a last minute boost to a campaign that has ongoing in the public arena for nigh on six months.

Rather, they should be a clear, costed plan for Government, and they should be released at such a time and in such a manner that they allow the greater part of the election contest – not the closing moments – to be based on a foundation of facts, not spin. This is what voters need, deserve, and should expect to receive from parties serious about winning them over on sound policy foundations.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it is the Green Party’s manifesto that leads the pack on these terms. The policies may veer from heavy-handed state interventionism to near-libertarianism, but they are at least properly explained and costed. The document has been laid out with great clarity, and the financial appendix at the back of the manifesto – which explores in detailed tables projected tax revenue, expenditure and borrowing requirements – sets a high standard for manifesto costing.

The other parties’ efforts fall well short of this, leaving the electorate none the wiser. Their various uses of the manifestos may make sense in campaigning terms – the pitch for Coalition partnership, the last minute offers, the compensation for a perceived weakness – but they don’t work in the interests of the voting public.

How best then to herd these political cats towards more clarity, openness and accountability? Labour’s commitment to legislate in order to force the major parties to have their manifestos checked by the Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) is a step in the right direction, but is too heavy-handed. There is a better solution.

Rather than undertaking an enforced examination of the manifestos, the OBR should commit to the independent and transparent costing of the manifestos, provided that the parties submit their manifestos to them by a fixed deadline, well in advance of the short campaign. The OBR would then review the costings, work through them with the parties, and release them all at the same time a few weeks before the short campaign.

This would inspire two important changes. First, it would push the main contenders in the Election towards more realistic and responsible manifesto commitments, while preventing ‘challenger’ parties from running campaigns based on radical and expensive policies that they know they will never have to fully explain.

Second and most importantly, it would stimulate the early release of manifestos. It would end the last minute game of chicken between the parties over manifesto release dates, which results in the manifestos being published long after the tone of the campaign is set and the TV debates have been concluded. Every party would scramble to submit their report to the OBR by the set, early date, terrified of being accused of avoiding proper scrutiny.

This crop of manifestos has been quite interesting, but for all the wrong reasons. With a few light-touch changes, manifestos could become meaningful once more.