Thursday, May 06, 2010


A Final Glance At the Manifestos

If you’re interested in what the parties have to say, you’ve probably already glanced at their manifestos (available for free online) or bought one of the “Why Vote Party X” books in the shops. I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis of any of them at this stage, though I’ve read some more thoroughly than others. But even at a cursory inspection, you see something of the parties in them. What are their priorities? What do the covers and contributors tell you about their approaches? What about the gays? And why (surprise) do I prefer the Liberal Democrat publications?


The cover of their Manifesto mentions “A Future,” but it’s a retro-future, desperate to ignore all the failures of the past and imagine themselves safely back in a cosy socialist utopia (not one on offer within the text): the cover looks like it was drawn in the 1950s as an advert for Nuclear Families For A Nuclear Future. I’m gay, I don’t trust nuclear power, and I don’t want to go back to the ’50s – and I don’t like Labour always telling me their perfect niche into which I should fit (as ever, no new policies on LGBT equality – though Mr Brown personally attacked marriage equality. Their record is to wait for the Lib Dems to come up with them, vote them down, then pick them up a few years later when it looks like they’re ‘safe’). There are no new ideas – just, as ever, that Labour knows best, mixed with authoritarian dog-whistles like calling a chapter “Crime and Immigration” (but with cartoons, though. Surely no-one who uses crayons could be evil). The Why Vote Labour book makes the same approach still more explicit: it has the central stamp of approval from Gordon Brown’s foreword, but the deniability of being written by someone who’s not an MP; the Conservatives are attacked by implication in the book’s first paragraph, and by name in the second; and while there are many paragraphs allegedly written by other people, most of them are just identified by a first name and a town – like a made-up quote on a leaflet – and all of them are put carefully in their place, framed in boxes under orders as examples of the central Labour Truth.

But neither of these publications matters very much. Can you think of a single new policy that Labour’s been campaigning on? Not one. It’s all been about a tiny fraction of government spending that they can pick out as a potential Tory cut to make you scared, then either saying the “Liberals” will do the scary same thing or cosying up with “I agree with Nick” on alternate sentences.

The Conservatives?

The cover of their Manifesto offers an “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”. Only the Tories could frame a populist appeal to every citizen in the style of a £500-a-head white tie do, as if assuming everyone goes to them all the time, like they do; only the Tories could invite everyone to participate in government, then spend their entire campaign taking fright and shrieking panicky scare stories about the awful danger of, er, anyone but the Tories forming the Government of Britain. So I admit I’m biased against a cover that might as well be a neon sign saying ‘We Don’t Mean It’. Open it up, though, and it does look more inviting. There’s none of the faux pas of the cover – instead, it’s a graphic designers’ paradise, easily the prettiest of the manifestos. And the mood music is early David Cameron: it feels more like a “liberal” Tory manifesto than any that have gone before. There’s no sign of the hard right policies that have appeared in desperation in speeches and posters as Tory support has sagged during the campaign – there’s little sign of much in the way of firm policies at all, but there are lots of nice full-page pictures of towns across Britain and in other countries, as if the Tories are taking credit for them, or possibly preparing to annex them.

The Conservative Manifesto was launched a couple of days after their Shadow Home Secretary was caught saying one thing in public and another thing in private about gay rights, yearning for the days of signs in windows marked “No Blacks, No Gays, No Catholics”. I wonder, I thought, if the manifesto does the same thing? Well, in panic at their plummeting gay vote, David Cameron… No, actually, he’d just made that awful fuck-up in a Gay Times interview and had to ask them to stop the camera, hadn’t he? Then he spun to the gay press that he’d begin the campaign on 6th April by mentioning gays in his first election speech, but having said that to the gay press, said “Black and white… Rich and poor…” but didn’t say “Gay or straight…” to the crowd and the TV cameras. Say one thing in one place, say something completely different to someone else. That’s the Tory way of speech – what are they like in print? So, amazingly, George Osborne was thrust out as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and promised to tackle homophobic bullying, at long last, and even came up with a uniquely Tory policy none of the other parties had mentioned and which I thought was a good idea and on gay rights. Credit where it’s due – that’s a first! He said they’d go some way (though, of course, not all the way) to quashing convictions of men who’d had sex with men that was only illegal because the law at the time was discriminatory. But… No. Again, the Tories say one thing to gays, but something else to other people. Because on the day their manifesto launched, “homophobic bullying” was put on the front page of their website… But it’s not in their manifesto. Nor is their other idea. Or any other pro-gay policies whatsoever. They do, though, have a nice pretty picture of Brighton, and mention how gay it is, because if that’s in a Tory manifesto it must all be down to the Tories. Somehow, I don’t think it works that way.

Oddly, the Why Vote Conservative book has a more coherent stamp to it, every word written by the same person and advancing an argument… But it’s also by a long way the most deniable of the three. Written by a Tory blogger, it opens not with a foreword from Mr Cameron but a disclaimer that he had absolutely nothing to do with it, nor any Tory MP nor employee. Gosh. So, they’re really keen to be pinned down on policy, then.

Oh, and in the last few days, David Cameron’s rushed out a “Contract” on Britain with a different set of policies again. Some of which were in the manifesto, and some on the posters (no, not the first set – nor the second – you know, this week’s Tory posters), and some presumably were just what Rupert Murdoch told him to say to try and salvage his investment.

It’s not clear which, if any, of these publications indicate what the Conservatives would actually do if given power – except enjoy it.

The Liberal Democrats

The cover of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto is quite plain – in both senses. “Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010,” it’s labelled. “Change That Works For You – Building A Fairer Britain”. And the only other thing on the cover is, would you believe it, policy. Imagine that, for a manifesto? It sets out the party’s four key priorities about Fairness. The same ones Nick settled on last year; the same ones he made the centrepiece of his speech to Lib Dem Conference in March; which I picked out as the party’s key themes at the start of the campaign; the same ones he’s explained in every interview; the same ones I saw him give a barnstorming speech about on TV at his final campaign rally last night. Inside the manifesto, it explains those four key priorities in more detail, right at the front. Then sets out all the other policies, saying up front that the key priorities are the most important, but that they’d try to implement the rest too, depending on how much influence the Lib Dems win in the election (oh yes – and after several decades of being the party most committed to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, even when they were wildly unpopular, there are commitments to plenty of them in there. Including, in the section on education, with tackling homophobic bullying, as well as that on “families of every shape and size,” the workplace, hate crimes…). Every single section has green tabs next to commitments to show how a green approach runs through every area of policy. And, at the back, there’s an index so you can find every issue you’re interested in more easily, and a full set of costings – the only manifesto that sets out how a single policy can be afforded. And this sets out the figures for every single commitment.

This is very odd, after the other two manifestos. Words and numbers, rather than just packing the pages out with pretty pictures (though there are a couple)? It’s as if the Liberal Democrats want you to know what they’re promising, be able to check the figures, and hold the party to them. Imagine!

Then there’s the Why Vote Liberal Democrat book. It has a foreword from Nick Clegg, and it’s written by Danny Alexander, the MP who’s Nick’s Chief of Staff and who also edited the manifesto. Well, I say it’s written by Danny… But, although it’s not afraid to say up front that all this is the Liberal Democrats saying exactly the same here as everywhere else – though, in fact, I prefer the more expansive Liberalism of Nick’s introduction here to the much shorter, more businesslike values page in the manifesto, a document boiled down to concrete promises on fewer pages with larger type – it’s not all written by Danny, and nor do other contributors only walk on as directed to give their name (or part of it) to a carefully spun paragraph. While Danny edits the book and provides the overarching theme, each chapter is written by a different Lib Dem spokesperson or supporter. Where the manifesto gives the bullet-point commitments, this explains the thinking and the philosophy behind them, not by central party diktat but in many people’s own words: MPs; councillors; a former senior police officer; a former Director of Public Prosecutions; actors like Colin Firth; musicians; and, yes, an out gay Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate – Ed Fordham, who I hope very much will win Hampstead today – writing about gay equality. It’s a party not of iron control and a single voice, but people working together and unafraid to speak out. It isn’t just the same as the manifesto – but it’s entirely in harmony with it, complimentary, not contradictory. They’re the only two publications from any of the three parties that actually work together persuasively to say why you should vote for them.

What the Parties Stand For

For weeks, I’ve wanted (but not had the energy) to write a piece on each of the manifestos, which I’ve finally got out rather late… And a piece comparing each of the parties’ key pledges announced at the start of the campaign, which – as the Lib Dems had four, Labour five and the Tories six – was going to be Torchwoodishly called ‘The 456 Are Coming’. Perhaps it’s just as well I never got to write the latter: while Nick Clegg and his party have been campaigning so determinedly on the Lib Dems’ Four Fairnesses that I suspect every Lib Dem and a substantial chunk of the public could name them, the other parties’ focus-grouped ‘pledges’ have formed such a minuscule part of what they’ve actually said that I bet they’d be news even to most of their candidates. What, I have to ask, is the point of campaigning to get elected if you don’t know what you intend to do? Are Labour and the Tories really only about power and nothing else? It looks like it.

All the Tories stand for is their sense of entitlement. They think they were born to rule, and they’re damn well going to do it, and do whatever the hell they like, even if only a third of people vote for them. Exactly what they want to do is still unclear: “liberal” Conservatives gave way to ferocious personal attacks on Gordon Brown; now the policies they’re campaigning on are of the hard right, while trying to scare anyone who thinks they shouldn’t have absolute power. Having changed all their policies and their approach several times just in a month’s campaign, it’s difficult not to conclude that they want power because they just want power.

All that Labour stands for is stopping the Tories. Seen their posters? Seen their broadcasts? Heard their speeches? They’re the only party in this election running an even more negative campaign than the Tories are. After thirteen failed years, they’ve got nothing left but scaring people into voting unenthusiastically but worriedly for more of the same. As I’ve observed of them so often, their one theme is, “We’re shit, and we know we are, but – ooh! The Tories! Scary!”

And what do the Liberal Democrats stand for?

The same as we did at the beginning of the campaign. The same as we did before the campaign. The same as we did last year. The only party that’s set out firm priorities, and stuck to them – not panicked and changed them from week to week, or just tried to define themselves by being ‘not the scary other lot’.

The Liberal Democrats stand for fairness: If you vote for the Liberal Democrats, you know what you’re getting. And I will – because I want to get it.

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