There once was a time when elections were all about manifestos. They provide an opportunity for political parties to bring together their brightest and best, and articulate why they are fit to govern. Sometimes it can be the tool that injects some much needed life into a party’s support base, or it can be a long suicide letter, as the late Gerald Kaufman once described the Labour party manifesto during the fateful 1983 campaign.
But over the years manifestos have come to take on a whole new role. The 2010 Conservative Manifesto, a leather bound “Invitation to join the Government,” was a communications and marketing tool dreamed up by blue sky thinker Steve Hilton. Its centre piece, the creation of the Big Society, was more platform than policy. To the extent that nobody really understood it. Since then we’ve seen lots of rhetoric whilst being startlingly policy-lite in these increasingly flashy concept pieces. Even Ed Miliband’s act of carving the highlights into stone failed to transform statements such as “A country where the next generation can do better than the last” into a physical commitment.
So where does that leave lobbyists, the politically incorrect term for us lot that try to influence policy, highlight issues and affect change? In many ways it can be a vital opportunity for us to get our stall in early, especially if you’re supporting an issue that captures the imagination of the public and the media. But it can also be a millstone around our collective neck; a period when the government shelves policies that you’ve been supporting for years, as the parties do deals on what should be nodded through and what should be shelved ahead of dissolution.
In a political age where rhetoric has more currency than commitments this is a chance to make sure that you get your cause into the spotlight. And as manifestos seek platforms rather than spending commitments, unless you’re in a ring-fenced area, it can be a lot easier to sharp elbow your way in and the risk is much lower. No promises, just aspirations.
I work for a national poverty charity, and it has never been more important to make sure that we have a commitment to help those struggling financially. This is where getting the balance between policy and rhetoric is important. A commitment to support the lowest paid might sound positive, it is, but it can also be a used to defend a policy of cutting support for those less fortunate. Reducing the national debt is a good thing, but without a specific commitment as to where those savings are coming from you never know where the knife is going to fall.
The most powerful weapon that you have as a campaigner is the truth. Funny that. As a charity it’s not hard to sell an emotional narrative to policy makers but if you’re light on facts and fight on passion you can be easily swiped away. As the broader sector continues to commit to measuring impact through impressively scientific and robust ways we have seen our politicians increasingly rely on us to bolster their chosen policy commitments.
This is something that is particularly powerful for charities that work directly with the public, especially those that work with the vulnerable. Solid data is a powerful weapon when guiding policy positions and one that is not used often enough. It is not the job of charities to campaign politically, some people may differ in that view, but it is our job to represent those that cannot represent themselves.
Over the next six weeks we can expect a surge of activity from charities, as well as all sectors looking to fight their corner. This is not about getting something in the manifesto, they’ve been cobbled together already, but about setting up the circumstances for that vital clarification, denial or equivocation that can be used to fire the policy starting pistol after the election.
The media has an increasingly important role to play in this too. How many times have we seen an election commitment come out of a tabloid campaign, or more frequently, a surprise budget announcement? These are the easy wins, the policies that seem to make everyone happy at first glance yet frequently are found to be ill thought through. For a niche cause this can be your chance to shine, especially if you have an effective backer in parliament.
Snap elections mean snap decisions, and because prospective governments know how dangerous these can be they are wary of making them. But they do happen. There will be policy teams out there that are about to have their biggest success for the next five years and they don’t know it yet. The secret is getting the data right, have a clear angle, and get your media and political ducks in a role.
But let me finish with the elephant in the room. Most people think they already know the result of this election, and most people are probably right. But it’s a danger to think that only one party needs to be lobbied. Labour may well be the underdog here, a position which may cause them to do better than some predict, but a popular policy on the doorstep is a popular policy full stop. We don’t just see this during general elections; at the last Mayoral Election for London we saw a range of sensible and popular policy proposals from parties that had little chance of polling 10%. They can be stolen by the winning party, and it’s the final destination that counts in this game.
This election is a chance to get the political parties to do your job for you. If you have an idea, and the evidence to back it up, you will be their best friend. You might even change the world, just a little bit. Be clear, be direct, be non-partisan, and you might just get what you want. See you in 2022.