The undebated parts of election manifestos matter

Geraint Talfan Davies expresses his disappointment with the content of the election debate.

Geraint Talfan Davies is former Chair of the IWA. He is Chairman of the Welsh National Opera and former Controller of BBC Wales.

How do you make up your mind how to vote in an election bedevilled by the venomous partisanship of the bulk of our national press, manifestos that do not contain all that parties are proposing but do contain things that parties will slide out of, red lines that will probably turn out to be pale pink, unionists intent on division and nationalists promising to be good members of the union club, not to mention numberless other practised obfuscations of the politicians’ rough old trade?

There was a deceptive civility to the first half of the campaign, perhaps an unintended consequence of its extended duration. That first phase was also framed by strictly controlled television debates that predated the publication of the manifestos, and broadcast far enough from the election date not to panic campaign managers. As the finishing line has neared, those managers have been panicked by our stubbornly unchanging responses to pollsters’ question. Now the gloves are off.

Newspaper headlines are becoming ever more absurd: ‘Labour-SNP – greatest crisis since the abdication’ exclaims the Mail. ’11 days to save the nation’ wails the Express. ‘Nine days to save the union’ warns The Times, abandoning any attempt at originality. ‘Mili-Brand!’ shouts the Evening Standard having photographed the Labour leader leaving the home of non-voting comedian, Russell Brand, after an interview. “Monster Raving Labour Party’, screams the Sun next day.

Meanwhile, the politicians themselves pay absolutely no attention as the Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, daily marks their homework down as distinctly substandard. They simply fold and launch another paper aeroplane from the back of the class.

It is all very depressing. But let’s not be too idealistic. Manifestos are more akin to estate agents’ brochures than peer-reviewed academic papers. General elections comprise marketing campaigns designed to leave an impression in the mind, but free of the rigours of the Advertising Standards Authority. This is a political retail war, complete with special offers, dodgy warranties and nectar points of different colours. What does it matter if the watch doesn’t work as long as it glints on the counter? There is no consumer protection regime in this market.

This is the cynical view. It has to be qualified. It would be wrong to say that this determined superficiality means that there is little difference between the parties. Some half-truths are preferable to others. Labour and Lib Dem austerity-lite may be timid in the eyes of full-blooded anti-austerians like Wood, Sturgeon and Bennett, but it is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from the Cameron-Osborne recipe, and will certainly have a lesser impact on the most fragile components of the public realm and society’s most vulnerable members. I am not in Brand’s non-voting camp.

The problem is that while the political barkers tout their special offers, precious little room is left to discuss seriously all those fundamentals that, in the longer term, are the real determinants of the performance and quality of our society. As the IFS director said, “There’s nothing in any of the parties’ proposals that we think will help the good functioning of the economy.” A fairly damning statement if ever there was – if it is true.

If you are Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, you are, understandably, inclined to opine on matters fiscal. That is your job. But that is part of the problem. The debate has revolved incessantly around matters fiscal – important, admittedly – but without getting greater exactitude from any party than when the campaign started. Instead, we have the alternative tactic by Labour and Conservatives of lashing themselves to portentous pledges and, in the case of the Conservatives, to dangerously misguided legislation designed to force – as if it were needed – a total focus on only one side of the budgetary equation, spending. Meanwhile 80 per cent of the content of the manifestos goes undiscussed.

What of those fundamentals of our society and economy? The Conservatives and Lib Dems, having enjoyed the advantages of governing, have produced manifestos packed with detail (a traditional Lib Dem failing), but with little or no assessment of the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the economy. Labour, on the other hand, have made some radical statements about our corporate framework, although with little detail on how radical change would be effected.

Given that over the last decade a fifth of quoted companies have disappeared from the London stock exchange, there is surely an urgent need to debate existential threats to some sectors of British industry: investment performance that has been declining for a decade despite companies being cash rich, low productivity and, most important of all, the nature and duties of ownership.

It is surprising – since it was the Lib Dem Minister, Vince Cable, who commissioned the John Kay review into ‘equity markets and long term decision making’ – that more of the review’s thinking did not surface in the Lib Dem manifesto. It is more evident in Labour’s manifesto that includes three paragraphs of radical import, seemingly influenced by events such as the disgracefully managed takeover of Cadbury by the US company, Kraft, in 2010 and perhaps even by the longstanding analyses of Will Hutton that Tony Blair once rejected. Labour’s manifesto says:

“Britain’s economy is being held back by the culture of short-termism, which is a major obstacle to the development of productive businesses and industries. We will reform corporate governance to protect our leading firms from the pressure to put tomorrow’s share price before long-term growth potential.

Institutional investors will have a duty to act in the best interests of ordinary savers. They will have to prioritise long-term growth over short-term profits for the companies in which they are investing. We will change takeover rules to enhance the role of long-term investors by restricting voting to those already holding shares when a bid is made. In addition, we will strengthen the public interest test.

We will improve the link between executive pay and performance by simplifying pay packages, and requiring investment and pension fund managers to disclose how they vote on top pay. And we will make sure employees have a voice when executive pay is set by requiring employee representation on remuneration committees.”

That is a formidable and, some would argue, overdue agenda for reform but not easy to implement and, given the current dominance of neo-liberal thinking, one that will not get an easy ride. However, in principle, it is surely something with that Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Greens will find it easy to support.

There are several other areas where the superficial retail approach has masked a need for deeper exploration of the issues: Europe, housing, the constitution and climate change are but four examples. Even the Green Party leader seemed to play down climate change in the television debate with opposition leaders.

On housing, for instance, the Conservative promise to introduce a subsidised ‘right to buy’ for the tenants of housing associations has been heavily criticised by everyone in the sector. It is in no-one’s interests except a handful of lucky tenants. At the same time Labour has promised to cap rents in the private sector, a triumph of hope over experience. Neither will increase housing supply. Labour would have done better to have put some more flesh on its promising proposal to double the current rate of house building by creating a market ‘that rewards the building of high quality homes rather than land banking and speculation.’

The housing sector, as well as the ownership and taxation of land, is another area ripe for reform. We have a rate of house building that is wholly inadequate to the country’s needs. It is a real, but artificially induced shortage. We also build poorly designed homes, that are the smallest in the developed world, England and Wales being the only EU countries with no minimum space standards for housing. It is another area where Labour aspirations and longstanding Lib Dem support for land value taxation – reprised in its current manifesto – have a natural affinity.

On Europe, despite Conservative tacking to the UKIP vote, not to mention its own internal dissidents, little has come to the surface except repetition of the Conservative promise of a referendum and Mr Farage’s fulminations. Every party, other than the Conservatives and UKIP, appears to be wholeheartedly in favour of EU membership. Yet all parties can also agree that Europe can be too bureaucratic and has something of a democratic deficit. But you have to search for specific ideas for a better EU, as opposed to generalised commitments  and variations on vetoes.

Lib Dems say they are “the party of reform whether that is in Westminster, Holyrood, the Senedd, or in local councils and the EU is no exception.” Labour says it will “continue to open up EU decision-making and implement institutional reforms to help build levels of trust among European citizens.” Amen, say I, but neither statement takes you very far.

And on our own Union the focus of debate seems to have been on the propriety of engaging constructively with the SNP – despite the likelihood of that party achieving a democratic mandate uniquely powerful in UK electoral history – rather than on how to remake a coherently structured union. Both Labour and Conservative parties will have a lot to do to convince people, especially in England, that the they are now fully wedded to decentralisation. Once again it seems that Labour and the Lib dems are in agreement – on the desirability of a UK Constitutional Convention.

It is possible to argue for ever about the arithmetic of government, especially as the vagaries of economic growth can affect revenues and the taxation/spending balance so profoundly. One can debate the robustness or flimsiness of this policy or that. One can also take a view about a party’s competence, although nothing in our recent past indicates much of a difference between the two main contenders. In the end, with whatever reservations you choose, you must take a view of a party’s, or perhaps a leader’s instincts and how that connects with your own vision of society. And on that basis, I know which of the two main contenders I would prefer, buttressed by others though the winner will need to be.

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