Thursday 14 January 2010

Do the manifesto differently

The content of the manifesto which Labour puts forward at the General Election will be a central theme at Saturday's Causes to Fight For Fabian new year conference.

How that case should be communicated will also no doubt be an issue debated in these image-conscious times. The return of the pledge card is reported in this morning's Independent, with political editor Andrew Grice considering the challenges for Labour's manifesto and campaign.

In the Fabian Review preview of the political battles of 2010, I argue that Labour needs to think differently about the way its manifesto pitches the public argument:

"Large chunks of our 2001 and 2005 manifestos were more or less word-for-word identical", one Labour Minister told me. It is easy to understand why. Language has been carefully crafted around which the party can coalesce. The statistics as to what progress has been made were updated, and the next steps of the policy agenda set out. This had the virtues of being contentful and serious, though it suggested too that a party aware it must govern in prose felt it might be prudent to leave the poetry out of its campaigning too.

The 2010 manifesto is shaping up similarly. Labour effectively published, without much fanfare, a draft manifesto in its 'The Choice for Britain' document on the last day of the party conference. It suggests another manifesto similarly conceived as a report of a work-in-progress from a reforming government.

But this is strange. Labour is clear that it is the "underdog" in this election: that it needs to run the insurgent campaign of a party challenging for power, seeking to disrupt the assumption that David Cameron has won.

Taking that idea seriously should make the dynamic of the 2010 campaign very different from that of 2005 and 2001. That should include doing the manifesto differently too.

Read the piece on the Fabian website.

I was looking up Clement Attlee's description of his ethical socialism as 'Christianity minus the mumbo jumbo' to respond to Alastair Campbell on Next Left yesterday, but initially took the wrong Peter Hennessy book off the shelf. But that did turn up this marvellous anecdote in the Attlee chapter in Hennessy's 'The Prime Minister', albeit one of rather less contemporary use to us now.

In sharp contrast to the five month campaign now effectively underway, this interview with Attlee took place just after the visit to the Palace and the announcement of the official campaign in 1951:

Interviewer: Tell us something about how you view the election prospects.

Attlee: Oh we shall go in with a good fight. Very good. Very good chance of winning if we go in competently. We always do.

Interviewer: On what will Labour take its stand?

Attlee: Well, that's what we shall be announcing shortly.

Interviewer: What are your immediate plans Mr Attlee?

Attlee: My immediate plans are to go down to a committee to decide on just that thing as soon as I can get away from here.

Interviewer: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the coming election?

Attlee: No.

(This was re-broadcast in an 'Attlee: The Reasonable Revolutionary' BBC2 documentary made by Jeremy Bennett and Roy Hattersley, marking the centenary of Attlee's birth in 1983).

Many rightly think of Attlee's "Let Us Face the Future" 1945 manifesto and "Now Win the Peace" campaign as the best example of Labour election campaigning. Like the Moliere character who discovered he had been speaking prose all of his life without knowing it, they certainly had what we might now call a campaign "narrative" back in 1945.

Perhaps less so in 1951. As Richard Crossman noted in New Fabian Essays, that was “not only because it lacks a map of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers. The manifesto lacked radicalism. And Labour did lose office, though with more votes than the Conservatives and with no less than 48.8% of the vote, its own highest ever share of the poll.

Make of that what you will.

1 comment:

Max Atkinson said...

If you'd like to watch the interview with Attlee, I posted it on my blog last April at