Why it is worth taking party manifestos seriously

Matthew Spencer, Green Alliance

It’s the last party conference season before the General Election. Take note of big ideas finding their way into manifestos because they will affect your future, says Matthew Spencer of Green Alliance.

Have you spent the last four years “fired up to play your part in the nation’s future”? No? You didn’t accept your invitation from David Cameron to join the government of Britain?

Is that because you wanted “a future fair for all” offered by Gordon Brown?

Or perhaps you didn’t spot the sunny uplands on offer at the last election because you didn’t read the manifestos.

Most people don’t. If they are remembered at all it tends to be for the promises not met, rather than the policies delivered. It is in this context and against the backdrop of public disillusionment with Westminster politics that I want to persuade you that manifestos really do matter.

"Edward Heath: It now looks like he spotted a new mood that would lead later in the same decade to modern environmentalism and the establishment of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace"

I recently stumbled across a website that hosts all of the manifestos since 1945, and it was a delight to read the texts from elections past. No, really.

Reading the words of Harold Wilson as he sought office in the year of my birth gave me a really clear sense of the heft and weave of public debate of that time. Lots of earnest prose about technology and the need to address “the education of all its citizens in the responsibilities of this scientific age” but, best of all, a reference to hovercraft, the miracle of 60s engineering which we thought would lead inexorably to the invention of flying cars.

It may have been a poor guide to technology of the future, but Wilson’s 1964 manifesto announced a “massive programme of expansion” in universities and within five years another 16 had been built.  Fast forward to Margaret Thatcher’s first manifesto of 1979 and you can read her announcing council house sales policy which is still in place thirty five years later.

Manifestos reveal the concerns of the moment

Manifestos may be full of schmaltzy prose, but they remain a good place to go to hear the concerns of the moment. They contain policies that will be dropped alongside others that will change Britain. Like the best speakers who discard their notes before they speak, the parties don’t need you to read it, but they do need a process and a script to clarify the messages and the ideas they want you to hear.  

Most of all they need something that helps them get internal party agreement about which policies most matter if they are successful.

Green Alliance director Matthew Spencer is speaking at the Enviornmental Industries Commission annual conference "Establishing a green agenda" on 2 December. Find out more here

For much of the 50s and 60s what we now call ‘the environment’ featured in manifestos as ‘recreation’ and the desire to give people access to the countryside. 

Environment first earned its own section in Edward Heath’s successful 1970 conservative manifesto, driven by a concern that technological progress was damaging the environment and the quality of life. In it he announced “a major campaign in which government, local authorities and voluntary organisations will combine to produce a healthier, pleasanter Britain.”

It sounds quaint but, as a politician with a good nose for public sentiment, it now looks like he spotted a new mood that would lead later in the same decade to modern environmentalism and the establishment of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace the following year.

Breakthrough environment policies could emerge in the next parliament

Green Alliance has been busy curating green ideas for the 2015 manifestos for the last few months, initially by inviting leading thinkers to pose big ideas on our blog, and then via a structured set of proposals in the Greener Britain report, produced with nine other organisations from the conservation and environment sector.  We’re aiming to get the parties to raise their sights and build a public mandate to govern wisely, after a parliament in which they have been timid on the environment.  But we also think there is the opportunity for some breakthrough policies to emerge in the period to 2020.

This may seem unlikely in the midst of the UK’s prolonged national identity crisis, but strange things happen in a flux. Politicians reach for policies that make them look grown-up, above the fray, and working for everyone. Having wise things to say about the spaces we share, the air we breathe and the beauty of our natural world does that, which is why since the 1970s political parties have always tried to do it.

So we can be reasonably confident that all the manifestos will say something about the environment. The question is whether their proposals will be significant enough to have an impact and be remembered in ten or 20 years as something that made Britain better.

Will it be ‘one nation Conservatism’ or ‘one nation Labour’ which will be first to offer a solution to our urban parks funding crisis? If we can stop public funding disappearing it’s possible we’ll see a big shift to community management of our parks using a combination of local authority funding, public subscription and commercial income.

The Green Investment Bank is the first public financial institution to be set up in Britain in over fifty years, and it’s an achievement that all parties can share, given that both Labour and the Conservatives proposed it in their 2010 manifestos, and the Lib Dem business secretary played midwife to the proposal in government.

Will the parties now allow the Green Investment Bank to share its success with the public? It could start offering ISAs through the Post Office in 2015 if the next government grants it wider powers. If so, by the following election, green ISAs and crowd funding platforms might mean a million people in the UK investing in green infrastructure by 2020.

Reflecting what’s important and urgent: a greener Britain

I spoke to an experienced campaigner recently who said that the trouble with policy is that it felt like you had to wade through a sea of it before you were allowed an opinion. So true, and another explanation of why people feel disenfranchised from formal politics. But the same can’t be said of manifestos, the clumsy second cousins of policy which are specifically designed to stimulate opinion.  For good or ill, the manifesto is a distillation of what the parties think you most care about.

The parties need to make sure their offers reflect the importance of the environment to the British public, as well as the issues that are seen as urgent, so that they are not driven by short term reaction to events. Our big manifesto idea series set out 20 practical ways in which they could do that.

The manifestos next Spring will be stuffed with verbiage about the future of Britain, but they will only offer a credible vision of a better Britain if it is greener.

Matthew Spencer has been director of Green Alliance since May 2010 and has 25 years experience of UK and international environmental issues. Green Alliance is a member of the Environmental Industries Commission. He is speaking at the Environmental Industries Commission annual conference 'Establishing a green agenda' on 2 December. Find out more