Saturday, October 16, 2010

How much do election pledges matter?

There've been a gazillion U-turns by both the Conservatives and LibDems since they entered government, but none so massive than the LibDem pledge to abolish tuition fees, only to double them as soon as they got into power.

The response from the LibDems like Cable is to bleat that they "didn't expect to be in government" when they made the pledges - in other words, they felt they could safely trick voters with any number of unrealistic policies in order to get elected. Not only that, they seem to feel that the voters they tricked will nod sagely and decide that it was OK that the LibDems were pledging all sorts just to get elected, as long as they didn't expect to be in power! And that their pledges to their coalition partners are more important than pledges to the voters!

How much do broken pledges matter? Quite a bit, I think. One example is David Cameron's pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and the subsequent U-turn in late 2009. The Conservative lead started to plummet as some of their voters simply abstained in disgust. They had been 20 points ahead in mid 2009, but when the general election results came in, they failed to win a majority.

Breaking pledges in government is even worse. Labour was very, very careful to stick to it's manifestos - the Labour government even delayed the passage of the tuition fees bill, so that fees were in the 2005 manifesto and voters could vote against if they didn't like it (and Labour had a mandate for them when they got elected). I recall only one pledge broken in 13 years of government and that was the pledge not to raise income tax - higher rate tax was raised to 50% with effect from April 2010, a month before the general election. And the only reason that took place before the election was because it was impractical to hold the general election on 2nd April and then the council elections in May. So one broken promise right at the end of 13 years in government.

What hurt John Major's government so badly was making a great fuss of how Labour would raise taxes (the so-called "tax bombshell") and accusing Labour of wanting to pull out of the ERM and then breaking both pledges just six months after the election, leaving voters feeling like they'd been tricked.

Major and the Tories also thought that as the broken promises happened right at the start of that parliament, the electorate would forgive them five years on when the came to vote in the next election. You hear a lot of LibDems and Tories saying something similar now. "The next election is not till 2015".

But not only did voters not forgive Major, the longer they were denied a say, the more furious they got. What had been shock in 1992 and 1993 had hardened into implacable fury by 1997, and when they finally got to vote the electorate blasted the Tories into their worst defeat since 1832. John Major would have been better off holding the election in late 1993/early 1994 before momentum against him had started to build.

LibDems and Tories dismissing voters annoyance by saying "people will have calmed down by 2015" are making the same mistake Major did.

General elections are great safety valves. Let voters have their say early and you take a minor hit. But if you blatantly fib to get elected, and then dismiss voters concerns with a patronising "they'll get over it", anger just builds and builds and builds. The longer people have to wait to have their say, the bigger the blow-out. Luckily for Labour the coalition are too stupid to grasp this. Incidentally, this is why fixed parliaments are a bad idea, and fixing the length of parliaments for five years is even worse. We should retain the right to have elections at any point (in practice this means four year terms and the ability to consult the voter in unusual circumstances).


DevonChap said...

I think the Lib Dems will get a little more leaway with voters over broken pledges because this government is a coalition. If two parties come together in government and they have opposing views on a subject, one is going to have to break its pledges. That is the nature of coalition politics which wasn't the case with single party government such as we had under Blair or Major. The Tories opposed a graduate tax and felt tuition fees had to go up. Either the Lib Dems broke their manifesto or the Tories did. The Coalition agreement gave the Lib Dems the opt out of not having to vote for policies from Browne's review, so not technically breaching their manifesto. I expect most Lib Dem back benchers will avail themselves of this.

That said the 2010 general election was the most dishonest for decades with all parties (including Labour) lying about the cuts ahead. Whoever won was going to break many pledges, that was obvious. The Coalition gives its members a more open execuse to do so (The need to compromise and that).

Whether this will hurt the Lib Dems at the next election is moot. Many of those voters who are alienated by raising tuition fees are those who saw the Liberals as Labour Lite and have already decamped to Labour or the Greens. Certainly if I were a Lib Dem MP in a university seat, I'd be preparing to lose my job in 54 months time. Beyond that handful I can't see it swinging many seats.

The pledges that matter are economic ones. Not to devalue the pound, to remain in the ERM, or end boom and bust. Break those you are out next time. The main coalition ones are "safeguard Britain’s credit rating" and "eliminate the bulk of the structural deficit over a Parliament". If they fail on those then you will see a backlash.

What the Liberals can point to as the minority party in a coalition are the "4 steps to a fairer Britain", their key pledges on page 7 of their manifesto. Those are the ones the Tories were careful to include in the Coalition agreement. Minor parties can't ever promise to get everything the want but they can get their top priorities and the Lib Dems were clever in making a short list. Expect it is future elections.

How we think of politics is changing with the advent of the coalition and the likelihood of hung Parliaments in future. I think many party activists, especially in Labour, have yet to wake up to the new world multi-party politics the declining vote share of the two major parties has opened. The decline has been going on for nearly 40 years and we are now past a tipping point. Any one party getting 40% or more of the vote is going to become the exception rather than the rule (Labour only managed it twice since 1974). Reformed seats will make it harder for Labour to win a majority on sub 40% vote share. Coalitions are going to be common and that means manifestos will be less gospel than we are use to. I think the public are ahead of the political class here. They voted in May for compromise, parties working together. Shouting about broken pledges risks sounding like you are telling the voters they were wrong. Not a popular strategy.

Anonymous said...

What about the New Labour warmongers, 500,000 people killed in Iraq.

Who cares about election promises when you have a government that takes our country into illegal wars?

Anonymous said...

Can you remind us which party trippled university tuition fees?

snowflake5 said...

DevonChap - given that Vince Cable is in charge of the department that is doubling tuition fees, he is going to have to vote for it. As will Clegg.

Which means they have broken his manifesto pledge plus the pledges in all those debates.

It's also no good claiming everyone lied in the 2010 election. Governments are judged on their records. The Labour govt for 13 years broadly stuck to their manifesto ("we campaigned as new labour, we'll govern as new labour). The Coalition by contrast has resorted to trickery.

Anonymous - on tuition fees, Labour put in into the 2001 manifesto and campaigned on it. The Tories and Lib Dems campaigned against and lost. Then Labour implemented it's manifesto.

Actually having the guts to tell people up front you are going to do something difficult, and then winning! This must be really puzzling behaviour to LibDems (whose slogan is we-are-two-faced-liars-who-mislead-the-voters-for-electoral-gain).