To win and to govern, parties need a big picture – a refreshed perspective that has the potential to unite the country across the many different fractures we see. But early signs of what might be in the party manifestos suggest that no party - yet - has found a universally applicable framing of the challenges we face.
That was my key takeaway from the IPPR’s fascinating panel event on Monday discussing the role of manifestos in the run up to an election. “Manifesting: a how-to-guide” featured David Miliband, former Foreign Secretary, along with a panel including Claire Ainsley, Progressive Policy Institute, Miranda Green of the Financial Times, Adam Hawksbee from Onward, and Carys Roberts and Harry Quilter-Pinner of IPPR.
A new way of looking at the world is particularly important in this election. The headwinds facing our society mean that a lot of our old certainties have vanished. Our whole economic model is challenged by climate change and the bumpy road ahead towards energy transition. Much of the political debate falls short on our most pressing problems; how to build strong communities, deploy emerging tech and science in our best interests, or improve our health and wellbeing. Also, “we haven’t yet changed the understanding of people’s role in globalisation”, Claire Ainsley said, adding that the party who does that will be the winners. Added to that, the UK’s position in the world is increasingly contested, David Milliband warned, so our role amongst others will be limited unless this is reversed.
For both major parties, finding the big story will be hard. Adam Hawksbee pointed out that Conservative supporters are divided and hold a plurality of views about economic matters, yet share a more cohesive set of social and cultural beliefs. Labour supporters, meanwhile, are the opposite. This makes it hard for either party to set out a bold vision that unites their own base, let alone the country.
How can we find the ideas which will unite us?
Reflecting after the event, I believe that looking at this problem through the party political lens is not the answer.
Instead, we should look to what we know from deep public engagement. There are some things that matter to the vast majority of people, across divides. Competency of government. Ability of political figures and institutions to get things done and to hold to standards in public life.
And critically – a deep weariness with a system which trivialises the big challenges we face by politicising them. Carys Roberts, summarising research with the general public, said “There is no faith that politicians can deliver solutions that live up to the scale of the problem”.
We badly need something new. The session raised a few opportunities. The UK’s role in climate mitigation and adaptation is one big example – cross party consensus is badly needed and welcomed by the public. Post-Covid, there is appetite to reconsider the shared role of government and other bodies in protecting people, helping them to thrive, and supporting communities. And overall, the public know that policy needs to be developed in a way that will work, and will work for everyone, not just those with the loudest voices or the most power.
And underpinning all of this, the public want their political classes to rejuvenate democracy itself – to be open about the need for tough decisions, and to bring people along on the trade-offs journey with them.
Manifestos aren’t the place to nail down the exact processes and methods used to do this in government. “Constructive ambiguity”, Miranda Green pointed out, is very useful, as it allows those in power to adapt to new information, and can stop consensus issues becoming political footballs in the harsh environment of a General Election campaign.
But the manifestos can help us to a government that restores and renews democracy, if the mindsets of those writing them are in the right place. While manifestos are campaign tools, they are also an opportunity to set out a common vision of the future. A future politics which is not overly simplistic, which acknowledges complexity, avoids blame and adversarial politicking, and above all commits to a different, more reflexive and trusting relationship between people and power. Then, manifestos can create space for the next government to not only restore our faith in politics, but restore belief in ourselves and our future.