How to read a general election manifesto

A former civil servant who helped write a party manifesto explains how civil servants should analyse the all-important publications
Keir Starmer speaks on stage at the launch of The Labour party's 2024 general election manifesto in Manchester. Photo: AP Photo/Jon Super

By Steve O'Neil

18 Jun 2024


I cannot think of a manifesto in recent times as keenly awaited as Labour’s last Thursday. No doubt civil servants across Whitehall will be looking at it forensically between now and 4 July. Famously, manifestos are not blueprints for government. In many areas they contain only clues as to what a party will do in power. As someone who was in the civil service in 2010, went on to help write a major party manifesto, and now watches them in my role in public affairs, I wanted to offer some thoughts on how to interpret manifestos and Labour’s in particular.  

Policy will have been thought about but not fully worked up

Of course, manifestos do contain policies, many of them. Ranging from the vaguest flavour of policy direction to specific commitments. The first and obvious thing to say is that each policy statement will mean something. It will have been subject to much thought and negotiation through party policy-development processes. Someone in party HQs will have an idea of some of the details that sit beneath each line. 

When I ran a similar process, I had a spreadsheet covering each policy commitment. It recorded whether it was a spending commitment, whether primary legislation would be required, what public bodies would deliver it and what the views of key stakeholders were likely to be. I suspect those writing Labour’s manifesto will have got at least this far, but maybe not too much further. 

There are so few staff in party HQs or shadow ministers’ offices compared to government departments and the breadth of areas they cover is huge (normally full departmental briefs). The volume of policy work those staff deliver is pretty amazing, but it would be asking too much to expect fully worked-out plans. So, as I suspect civil servants will be well aware, policy commitments should be taken seriously, but there will be more work to do.

There is a broader conversation to engage with

Something that is perhaps not so much on civil servants’ radars is the ecosystem that sits behind manifesto development. I do not just mean the staff and various political players who contribute, but also the think thanks, NGOs, community groups, academics and others who have been playing into policy conversations over many years. So, if you are trying to understand what is behind a policy commitment, it is worth asking if it originates from one of these sources. 

The thought leaders contributing to Labour’s manifesto have been a topic of much discussion. Labour Together is seen as a central player and the growing influence of the Tony Blair Institute has been even more well documented. The Future Governance Forum is another. Academic thought leaders are important too. Take UCL, for instance, where I now work. Our UCL Policy Lab, run by Professor Marc Stears – formerly Ed Miliband’s adviser – has done excellent work bringing together people and ideas to tackle policy challenges. Professor Mariana Mazzucato also at UCL has led the development of mission-based thinking, now so central to Labour’s plans.

Manifestos tell a story within which policy commitments fit

Finally, manifestos do not just list policies that the authors hope the public will like. They tell a story about the country that can speak to political priorities and how a new government is likely to think about and articulate them. So to understand the thinking behind policy statements, it is worth engaging with that too.

The forward to the Labour manifesto is instructive for this – UCL Policy Lab’s work on the “respect agenda” is insightful to understand its positioning. Additionally, there has been much coverage of concepts like “securonomics” and “progressive realism”. which provides helpful context. A few weeks before the campaign started, I attended a briefing with a former mandarin who said the civil service will need to learn to speak Labour’s language if they come to power. That was good advice. 

Steve O'Neil is head of public affairs at UCL. He was formerly a civil servant at DfE

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