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Manifestos Should Be Binding Contracts With the Nation

Posted: 27/11/2012 14:17

It is only recently that I have begun to fully appreciate just how deep people's cynicism in politics actually goes. The vast majority of my friends and family are optimistic, fun-loving and pragmatic types, but I would be exceptionally hard-pushed to find one amongst their number who would say our politicians act with integrity or that our politics serves the people.

This is a tragic indictment because, from working in parliament, I know that there are many MPs, on all sides of the House, who are diligent, work hard and have solving their constituents' concerns as their top priority. The problem is that mistrust in our politics is now so extreme that the public has given up judging MPs individually, on their own merits; the very fact they are an MP is evidence enough that they're not to be trusted.

This culture of antipathy towards our politicians is hardly breaking news. However, what should be news is that neither the Conservative Party, the Labour Party nor the Liberal Democrats have come up with an adequate way of restoring that trust.

The next election will most likely be won on how well the economy is performing. Yet, if a party leader can come up with a bold, new plan of how to once again marry, in the British psyche, politics with the principles of integrity and public service, the road to Number 10 will have become much shorter.

And I believe I have that bold, new plan. We need a new Act of Parliament which forces political parties to act on their manifesto commitments, if elected.

The fundamental problem in British politics is that the public does not believe politicians' promises. This, I am sad to say, is understandable because David Cameron, for example, has subjected the NHS to the biggest overhaul in its history, despite his Party's 2010 manifesto saying: "We have consistently fought to protect the... NHS from Labour's cuts and reorganizations."

The Labour Party does not escape without blame either. In its 2005 manifesto the party promised: "We will put [the EU Constitutional Treaty] to the British people in a referendum". We are still waiting for that referendum, despite the fact that Cameron has previously promised one, too.

And last, but by no means least, the Liberal Democrats' 2010 manifesto infamously promised: "We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so everyone has the chance to get a degree." Although, in reality university tuition fees have increased by 300%, since their manifesto was printed.

If manifestos became a binding contract with the nation, then I firmly believe that more people would engage with election campaigns, vote and have greater confidence in the government delivering on its promises.

I am not saying that manifestos shouldn't be allowed to contain aspirations, but they should be clearly highlighted as such. For the avoidance of doubt, each policy in each parties' manifesto should be coded with either an 'A' for aspiration or a 'C' for commitment.

It is only by doing this that the public will truly know what each parties' priorities are and what each party believes is realistically deliverable. And if, for any reason, a government is no longer able, or no longer desires, to keep a manifesto commitment, then parliament should be dissolved and a new election called. This would obviously mean that manifestos would become much slimmer beasts, with few commitments, but this is surely better than the many promises the British public have been made, over the years, and which have not been kept.

The Act would have to be pragmatic, though. If no party won an overall majority and had to form a coalition, then the parties comprising that coalition could be reasonably expected not to necessary deliver their commitments. It would be whilst thrashing out the coalition agreement that the parties would push for what they were most ardently committed to. With the Lib Dems that appears to have been the personal allowance, not tuition fees.

Furthermore, this is one major constitutional change that libertarians, conservatives, liberals and socialists alike should all be able to agree to. Libertarians would doubtless like the taming effect such an act would have on 'sprawling' government, conservatives would like the increased checks and balances, liberals would revel in the act's championing of transparency and socialists would welcome a greater emphasis on ethics at the heart of our constitution.

Unfortunately, as David Cameron has not yet been able to keep his manifesto commitment to "act rapidly" to regulate lobbying, I doubt this would be a policy he'd advance. Nevertheless, I hope it would be something that Ed Miliband would consider. Ed has served the Labour Party with courageous and innovative leadership and I firmly believe an act which morphed manifestos into contracts with the people would provide his Clause IV moment by showing he was irrefutably on the side of the people.

Despite saying this, though, I'd be delighted for Dave to prove me wrong!

 

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