General election 2017: manifestos and the trouble with a snap vote

Written by Steve O’Neil on 24 April 2017 in Opinion

Faced with an unexpected election, political parties will be scrambling to write manifestos – and civil servants will be working to analyse them. Steve O’Neil sets out what to look for

As a former official who made the leap from Whitehall to Westminster, I recall fondly my time spent in purdah as a civil servant. As the urgency of ministers’ demands shuts down, I suspect many will be looking forward to a few weeks when the frenetic pace of life in a government department slows.

One thing you may not be looking forward to however is the tradition of ‘election contingency planning’; where each party’s manifestos are lined up and attempts are made to work out what it all could mean for your area of work. For many I’m sure this is a process of sinking hearts and raised eyebrows at the unrealistic promises, skyrocketing costs and vague platitudes. (Although it would be remiss of me not to note that the 2015 Liberal Democrat manifesto, on which I worked, was the most comprehensive). 

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If you are unimpressed by the rigour of party manifestos in normal election cycles; spare a thought for those Westminster staff that are now, without warning, attempting to put one together in a matter of weeks. The reason manifestos are un-comprehensive in the first place is the scale of the task.

Many thousand civil servants work on government policy, political parties have a few hundred staff and volunteers at most in their central offices, and most of those are working on campaigning not policy planning. This means that those who do policy development have truly massive portfolios. As a typical civil servant, you may deal with an area say the size of free school meals or cyber security. Working in Westminster your portfolio likely covers the work of a whole department or more, think education or home affairs. Given this vast scope it is pretty amazing how much ground parties do manage to cover in their policy development. 

But it is not the policy development that is the big challenge when it comes to putting a manifesto together, rather it is getting the thing agreed. Political parties are vast networks of people with different power and influence; from party grandees to rank-and-file activists. Developing a manifesto is at its heart a process of getting as broad agreement as possible. This is in part because you need these people, often working as volunteers, to go out and campaign whole-heartedly. A manifesto that upsets certain constituencies is a serious own goal. There are also various formal rules about who gets a say on a manifesto. Various committees and individual must get a say, or maybe even a veto on what gets into the document the leader holds up on launch day.

All this means that the development of party policy is a process planned, pretty meticulously, over the course of the parliament with much discussion and debate along the way. So what on earth are those writing manifestos to do when a snap election is so unexpectedly sprung on them?

Perhaps at such short notice you might expect that parties would dust off their 2015 versions, and recycle old positions in some areas. Indeed, a repeat of the last run would be absolutely on the cards if it weren't for the huge changes in the political landscape since May 2015, not least the changing of most party leaders. This means there will be a lot that the new teams might not want to adopt from the 2015 versions. 

For that reason I expect you’ll find this year’s manifestos are short and sweet, updating those areas that are really vital to each party’s campaigning strategy and, out of necessity, leaving below the radar issues for another time. So you might find your contingency planning is even more of a guessing game than before.

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Steve O’Neil
About the author

Steve O’Neil worked at the Department for Education from 2009 to 2013. He later became deputy head of the Policy Unit at Liberal Democrat headquarters leading up to the 2015 general election. He is currently a Fulbright scholar at NYU Wagner and UCL

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