Most people have never read a Political Party Manifesto in their life. You might expect a creedal statement, a summary and explanation of a Party’s core beliefs. “We believe in transnational financial capital, maker of wealth and tax avoidance. We believe in one holy, global, market economy, the forgiveness of greed, and the resurrection of one-nation Toryism …” or something like that. Comparisons and choice of Party leaders being odious, and this a profoundly important election for Britain, I decided to read the Manifestos of the two Parties most likely to reach Downing Street. I found these a fascinating collage of aims, pledges, and some principled thinking, a unique, literary form.
The 2019 Manifestos remind me of hopeful Wedding Gift Lists– prudently un-costed by the sender – with a hint of those New Year Resolutions you make as an adolescent, knowing full well, come the second week in January, they will be abandoned. The Conservative Party does offer a second document costing its pledges which you can download, and Labour claims they have done the sums. And, of course both Manifestos are lengthy and comprehensive: 107 pages of Labour’s It’s time for Real Change and 64 pages of the Conservative’s Get Brexit Done. Unleash Britain’s Potential. Notice the two imperative verbs in the latter. This is to highlight strong leadership and that is why there are eight pictures of Mr. Johnson, hair carefully tousled, plus one picture of workers with a banner “We love Boris”. A picture of the bashful, and much bashed, Mr. Corbyn appears but once in the Labour Manifesto. An unfortunate thought does intrude that the real change needed is in the leadership of the Labour Party.
The substantive, domestic contents of each Manifesto have, in the main, been covered by political commentators. But of foreign and international policies beyond the European Union, hardly a word. Both are worth looking at.
The Conservative Party’s presentation“, Britain in the World” is, as might be expected, defence and security heavy. But it does include in the section “Our Values” the commendable pledge “to seek to protect those persecuted for their faith and implement the Truro Review recommendations” (An exemplary review undertaken by the Anglican Bishop of Truro on religious freedom).
Animal welfare policy also puts in an appearance under values with a picture of a veterinary surgeon and the head of a large black dog. Well, we are a nation of dog-lovers. Lest the vote of cat-lovers is forfeit the Party balances the ticket by “advancing [feline] microchipping”. The FCO will be relieved to know Animal Welfare will be promoted overseas - though the Ambassador to South Korea, a country where 300 or so restaurants have dog on the menu, may regret this. Remarkably the Animal Welfare section comes before the one on Climate Change. Yet there is no indication that advanced swimming classes will be provided for either dogs or cats.
The Labour Party in its excellent “A New Internationalism” section of its Manifesto bravely goes for Animal Rights with a charming badger photograph. So much for farmers’ votes. They are commendably strong on human rights, international solidarity and social justice, as well as the role of diplomacy.
By far the most puzzling item in the Labour manifesto’s internationalism section is to be found among its three “pledges” saying what they will do in the first year in power, presumably the most urgent priorities. The first of these is the promise to introduce a War-Powers Act that will require parliamentary approval for military action. Fair enough – though, as in the Sierra Leone civil war in 2000, military action may need to be taken very rapidly. The third is an important FCO-friendly £400 million to boost our diplomatic capacity. But the second is as follows: “Conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule”.
There are a number of possible explanations for this odd priority. The first would be the Manifesto drafters have read their Orwell. “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past”. Another would be that the idealistic student masses who flooded into the Party have run out of statues of bad people to pull down, or university lecturers with the wrong views about colonialism to ban.
Might the National Executive simply attend a course on colonial history in our universities? What more do we need to understand, for example about the impact of torturing Mau-Mau suspects in Kenya or, say, the Balfour Declaration’s contribution “to the dynamics of violence and insecurity” in the Middle East? Do they really suppose all post-colonial ills can be placed at the door of British imperialism?
Party manifestoes are worth reading in full. They tell you a lot about what each Party’s leadership thinks the public wants to hear. And in addition they are an opportunity to scrutinize a political Party’s world-view and deceptions. Very useful for citizens, Manifestos provide a check-list of aspirations and promises which they can later call to account.
The current Labour and Conservative Manifestos give rise to two thoughts: first, the leadership of the Labour Party has completely abandoned the realist understanding of political possibilities of the Blair-Brown years; economic radicalism is brutally punished by capital flight. They have forgotten that redistribution of wealth and stability in society, increasing salaries and building better public services, can only be achieved from a broad base of popular support. Because they haven’t established that base outside Party membership they won’t win the next election. The second thought is that the moderate Conservative Manifesto means there is no real way of knowing if the Tories, if they come back to power on 13 December with a workable majority, will tilt back to a more one-nation stance, or surrender to its new-found extremism. The clear and present danger is that the extremists will win the day.
See also TheArticle.com 26/11/2019