Those electoral promises

Few would know that it was Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the modern Metropolitan Police, who was the inspiration behind the concept and evolution of the electoral manifesto. In 1834, whilst on holiday in Rome, he was invited by King William IV to form a minority government to replace the Whig administration of Lord Melbourne. Prior to accepting to do so, he published a manifesto stating that it was incumbent on him to enter into a declaration of his views of public policy, as full and unreserved as he could make it. His manifesto for the ensuing elections reflected the political issues of the day and the restricted electorate whose votes he was seeking – currency, criminal law, the Reform Bill, municipal corporations, Church reform.

Electoral manifestos play a crucial role in the visions of party democracy and in the political science analyses of party competition. While many of us will be focused on the contents of manifestos, we know much less about how parties produce manifestos and the roles they take in campaigns. The stylized version of party democracy puts great emphasis on parties’ policy programs as structuring the election campaign, voters’ choices, and government policy. In the subsequent election, voters will not only judge parties according to their policy programs for the next term in office but also retrospectively, focussing on the government’s performance and scrutinizing if the parties have kept their promises. Parties then fight elections rallying behind a manifesto, laying down policy priorities and positions, and a team of leaders committed to them. The victorious party takes government office and implements its policy program.

The importance of parties’ policy programs or electoral manifestos cannot be stressed enough. This is largely due to the regularity with which parties dutifully produce these documents whenever an election is called. It is all about the issues that parties emphasise and the positions they take on a number of vital issues.

I have never quite understood what manifestos actually are meant to be, that is, how manifesto positions, regardless of their measurement, relate to post-election politics. That notwithstanding, in every election we have had I have always managed to discern between ideal policy positions (representing the party’s true convictions), stated policy positions (party ideals adapted to what the electorate is considered willing to buy), and policy forecasts (what the party claims it will achieve if endowed with government power).

But why is there all this fuss about manifesto commitments every time an election looms ahead?

The electoral manifesto can be best described as a party’s contract with the electorate.

The electoral manifesto can be best described as a party’s contract with the electorate.

I do not mean a legal contract but rather a moral contract between the party and voters based upon the programme the parties have committed themselves to implement if elected to government. And the potency of the mandate given to a government’s election manifesto can only be appreciated in a post-election analysis.

I would dare add that electoral manifestos hold a special status among civil servants for not only are they closely studied within every government department, but the commitments contained within them carry a distinct authority as far as the civil service is concerned. And let us not forget that voters are entitled to know what politicians intend to do in government before they cast their ballots.

The launch of a party’s manifesto is among the most decisive moments in a Maltese general election campaign. Manifestos are not merely devices to harvest votes at election time. They establish the agenda for a government that the party will pursue in office. Manifestos have a quasi-constitutional authority in our political system.

Political parties approach manifesto writing very differently. The Labour party, I believe, has a process that ensures all of the key elements on its Executive Committee have influence. So the Parliamentary Group, the trade unions, constituency Labour bodies and affiliated societies all take part in drawing the document up. The Labour Movement requires the manifesto to be formally agreed by the party’s stakeholders at a special Congress in order to remove any possibility the leadership would betray the party’s grassroots by refusing to implement any radical measures contained in its manifesto.

On the other hand, the Nationalist Party hardly has any pragmatic and flexible approach, giving control of its manifesto almost entirely to the leader and the central party organisation.

The Labour party, I believe, has a process that ensures all of the key elements on its Executive Committee have influence.

Manifestos have had distinct purposes at various historical moments in our political history. They were relatively short and pithy documents or set out at a broad vision of society that was a decisive break from what had gone before. In particular, though, Labour’s electoral manifesto for the last two general elections spelt out an approach to public service reform across health, education, criminal justice, and other important sectors providing a mass of technocratic detail.

For the upcoming elections, Labour’s manifesto will be more heavily scrutinised than the Nationalist or other manifestos since the Movement is expected to win a parliamentary majority on the basis of the published polls.

I can perceive the confidence with which the governing party is entering this race and the intention to make credible and viable pre-election commitments in its manifesto, whereas the Nationalist party’s position indicates it is still plagued by internal divisions as to its long-term direction.

What is less clear about party manifestos is how far they actually assist the democratic process. Very few people will read the manifesto of the party they are voting for. Most people depend on soundbite summaries that appear in the mass media. Manifestos are unlikely to disappear from the parties’ campaigns, but I believe, there should be more independent scrutiny of manifestos by independent and impartial entities. The National Audit Office could be tasked with producing detailed costings and assessments of each party’s manifesto to assist public debate. That might help voters digest the information they need before voting and help them make informed choices.

Smart voters are politically fluid in that they do not rigidly believe that the same viewpoint, party manifesto or individual is the poultice for all maladies in every election. They attune themselves to the zeitgeist, search for potentially reputable parties and candidates with suitable policies and cast their vote accordingly.

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Frans Camilleri
Frans Camilleri
2 years ago

It is important to note that (1) the Labour Government of 2013 was the first government ever to have a minister (none other than the Deputy Prime Minister) responsible for implementation of the electoral manifesto, and (2) a computerised reporting and monitoring system was set up to closely monitor implementation of the various promises, the timeframe therefor, who was responsible for what, any issues arising, etc. The outcomes were reviewed on a monthly basis by a Steering Committee.