Why manifestos are important

– Niamh Webster (@niamhwebster) explores the importance of political party manifestos in the countdown to the general election

The manifestos are out, but reading them all means reading seven or more long documents, some up to 150 pages. At about 185,000 words, the collected manifestos are about three times the length of Brave New World. For most people, there aren’t enough hours in the days left to read them.

Who reads manifestos anyway, you may ask – yet the manifestos are an essential ingredient in why elections bring democratic legitimacy, for three reasons: accountability, transparency and participation.

Accountability, because political parties must produce material to which they can be held to account on delivery, if elected.

Transparency, because manifestos force parties to be clear and open about their priorities, enabling voters to identify with the parties in an open and transparent way.

Participation, because at the height of the campaigns, the media coverage makes the upcoming election impossible to ignore.

Manifestos present an opportunity for the public to engage and learn about the parties and scrutinise their policies. Involving voters in a debate that can sometimes seem restricted to academics, media and politicians enables voters to compare and contrast the manifestos in a national conversation – and to attack what they don’t like.

There is a caveat to all of this; in the changing political party system of British politics, it is no longer always possible to hold politicians to account on the basis of their manifesto.

The General Election may produce a coalition government or a minority government, ruling on a basis of confidence and supply with the support of another party. In this case, as a recent Constitution Society paper explains, parties in Government will have to compromise on their policies to reach agreement. As is clear from the example of the recent coalition, the Lib Dems compromised on a major policy – tuition fees – which many of their supporters felt was a betrayal of a central manifesto promise.

Parties could also make manifestos easier to read. Most people will not read all the policies – that is left up to the experts. Most will never hold a copy in our hands. Not many of us will receive a full manifesto through our doors, and although they are available online, this leaves out a large proportion of the offline public without access.  Easy read versions and braille copies attempt to address the lack of accessibility, yet this cannot fully be remedied with such lengthy documents.

The manifestos might take a while to look through, but the political parties have spent even longer analysing, costing, researching these policies and making them as open and as detailed as possible to inform and involve potential voters. The information is crucial to the decision-making process in an open and democratic election. They are vying for your vote – take the opportunity and read, criticise and challenge.