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Jesse Norman MP: We need a 2015 manifesto that is short, engaging, clear and focused

Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. Follow Jesse on Twitter.

What should the 2015 Conservative manifesto look like?  I discussed this question at ConHome’s recent Victory 2015 conference.  Of course there’s little use in trying to write a detailed manifesto now, more than two years before the election. But there’s every reason to ask the broader question of what the point of a manifesto is: what it should be trying to achieve, and why.

Official party manifestos are a relatively recent innovation.  When, at the dawn of the Conservative party, Sir Robert Peel published the Tamworth manifesto in 1834, it was a general statement of principles from him as leader, not a party document.  It was not until the general election of 1950 that the Conservatives issued a party manifesto as such.  Even then the document made few if any specific commitments, though its overall thrust was clear.

The past two decades have seen a calamitous fall in public trust in politicians, and a huge rise in interest group politics. Together, these factors have had the effect of lengthening manifestos and encouraging the political parties to pack them full of detailed promises.  Fail to mention some issue, and your inbox will be full the following day.  Offer a long, serious and thoughtful discussion of the issues, as we did in 2010, and it can be hard to break through to voters.  

The result has been a vicious circle, in which any deviation from a party’s manifesto in office is treated by the media as a betrayal, further fuelling voter distrust.  On the other hand, a vast array of undertakings in the small print of a winning manifesto thereby gain special legislative status in the House of Lords under the Salisbury-Addison convention - even when they have had no coverage or prominence in a general election and therefore lack any real mandate.  It is no surprise that few people seem to believe political promises anymore anyway.

Meanwhile only a tiny percentage of the general public actually read a manifesto of any kind today.  That’s hardly surprising.  The 1966 manifesto was under 4,000 words long.  By 1979, this total had risen to 9,000 words.  In 2010 the word count was around 30,000.

So why not take a different approach?  We need to frame a choice to the electorate in 2015. Why not do it through a manifesto that is short, engaging, clear and focused?  One that gets away from IOU politics and addresses the key issues directly

  • It could be the length of a good, meaty magazine article, with detailed policy ideas put online (and explicitly outside) the manifesto. 
  • It could be written with the style and directness of a Charles Moore or a Fraser Nelson.
  • It could make a single argument tying four key Conservative messages together:  economic renewal (“Reform”), free institutions (“Ownership”), responsible individuals (“One Nation”) and a helping hand (“Little Guy”).  Tough on crony capitalism, strong on support for entrepreneurs and small business.
  • And it could blend a tight focus on economic hope and social reassurance, with a broader cultural message of shared values and national purpose. 
Just a thought.


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