Promises, promises

Professor Richard Toye and Dr David Thackeray are looking at how twentieth century politicians have communicated with the electorate by means of election manifestos and addresses

During the 2017 general election, the Conservatives portrayed Labour’s programme as highly expensive and unrealistic; Labour responded that the Tories own plans were incoherent and uncosted. Regardless of the merits of these competing claims, it is undeniable that party manifestos were at the heart of the political debate. We believe that the phenomenon of the manifesto is itself deserving of attention, and therefore our project will investigate why electoral pledges have taken this particular form and how it has developed since 1900.

Politicians are widely seen as pedlars of falsehoods who inevitably let the people down once in office – in spite of evidence that they have actually been quite good at delivering the specifics laid down in their manifestos. This has led us to ask what constitutes a political promise and how the act of making one has changed over time. Our plan is to explore twentieth century British general election manifestos (issued by political parties) and election addresses (issued on behalf of individual candidates). Examining manifestos and addresses reveals much about the changing nature of British politics, both in terms of how it was conducted practically and in terms of assumptions about the relationships between the public, candidates, and parties. 

Modern politicians are expected to make detailed (and costed) policy commitments. Indeed, parties have fostered such expectations through the changing language of election literature. When Tony Blair won a landslide victory in 1997, the New Labour manifesto was consciously styled as a ‘contract with the people’. Such messages are a world away from how earlier generations of politicians addressed the public. In the Edwardian era, for example, there was considerable scepticism of those politicians who ‘pledged themselves up to the hilt’ by making specific promises to interest groups. 

We suggest that in the past, politics was understood primarily as a dialectical process. Election addresses would set out broad principles and establish the candidate’s character and credentials for carrying them into effect; detailed policymaking would follow once in office, following reflection and discussion. Over the first part of the twentieth century, however, there was a broad, gradual, and contested change of approach. This increasingly required parties to compile lists of policies to offer to voters, which they were then considered to have an obligation to carry out come what may. As an internal Conservative Party election post-mortem concluded in 1950: ‘future statements of policy, both written and spoken, need to be worded with an eye on mistrustful and cynical readers and listeners, who are looking out for sentences which they can construe as intentionally vague.’

We will therefore consider addresses and manifestos as an element of stability in the wider context of rapidly changing election communication techniques, as exemplified by the rise of electronic media. Additionally, we will test the hypothesis that although the Labour Party, throughout the century, was only intermittently successful in securing support for its preferred ideological solutions, it was much more effective at driving changes in the ways in which policies were proffered to the electorate. It is this broad, gradual, and contested shift towards politics understood as a primarily programmatic rather than a discursive process that leads us to suggest that the twentieth century as a whole should be seen as an ‘Age of Promises’. The experience of the recent election would tend to suggest that it has not yet come to an end.

Professor Richard Toye and Dr David Thackeray
University of Exeter
Research Project Grant