Election manifestos – still commitments or now simply aspirations?

Elections have changed enormously over the last 20 years. They’ve arguably become more presidential. They’ve had to incorporate and adapt to technology and the digital age – particularly the development of social media and 24-hour news. But for all those changes, the manifesto is still a staple of the election campaign.

This is partly because there is an expectation that parties will produce a document that outlines all their policy priorities in one go. Partly it’s a reflection of how the publication of a manifesto can command media attention. And so we have Labour setting out its stall today, and the Conservatives doing the same tomorrow. While the other parties either have or will publish their manifestos, the next two days hold a particular interest given that, in all likelihood, it will be one of David Cameron or Ed Miliband who occupy Downing Street after 7 May.

But to what extent manifestos still matter? Do they still represent a body of objectives and commitments to which a political party can be held?

James Landale, commentating on the Labour manifesto launch for the Today programme this morning, summed it up very neatly. Manifestos aren’t widely read by the public – however much hype they might generate within the Westminster ‘bubble’. More importantly, with a hung parliament being a near certainty, are manifestos still the commitments a party intends to keep – or are they a starting point for the inevitable negotiations to form a post election coalition?

History suggests it might be the latter. The Lib Dems suffered five years ago when making their pledge on tuition fees – a commitment they were ultimately unable to meet. And it seems reasonable to expect that other parties will have learned from the Lib Dems experience. Thus, while some of the content of the parties’ manifestos will be set in stone, party leaders will almost certainly be prepared to negotiate over some of the commitments and pledges they’re prepared to make now.

If this is the case, then perhaps party leaders should consider whether they’ve a commitment to explain to the electorate which sections of their manifestos are finite and which are not. As things stand, the manifestos will clarify party positions for the coming weeks. Whether any one document is turned into policy in full is entirely another story.