From Pledges to Polls: How Manifestos Shape Electoral Success

As the parties unveil their manifestos this week, the Policy and Communications team at HJS looks at the role manifestos play in General Elections. We aim to detail how manifestos have evolved over time, the role of the media and whether a manifesto can make or break an election campaign.

Promises and Political Accountability

Fundamentally, we need to remember manifestos represent an implicit agreement with the electorate. Pledges represent targets by which the Government’s performance can be measured. Historically, unmet promises have had significant impacts on parties’ credibility and electoral prospects.

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats campaigned on a on a promise to phase out university tuition fees. After forming a coalition with the Conservatives, they accepted a threefold increase in said fees following negotiations on the implementation of austerity measures. This deviation from a key manifesto pledge caused lasting damage to the public’s perception of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, who were swiftly punished in the polls. Not only did the party go from 57 seats to 8 seats, their highest election total since is 12.

Such incidents have led to petitions calling for manifestos to become legally binding. However, recent seismic events, such as Brexit and the pandemic, highlight the advantage of keeping manifesto pledges uncodified. This flexibility allows the Government to adapt its platform to rapidly changing circumstances without the risk of legal repercussions or votes of no confidence.

Changes Over the Decades

In 1945, the Labour manifesto was a concise document containing around 3,000 to 6,000 words and seven specific pledges. This is a stark contrast to the 2019 election, with manifestos from both Labour and the Conservatives expanding to over 20,000 words, featuring more than 160 specific commitments.

This has largely been driven by the professionalisation of policy development within political parties. Parties now employ hundreds of staff, many of whom work to develop detailed policy proposals, resulting in longer and more comprehensive manifestos.

The evolution of media, such as the expansion of TV broadcasting and the shift from print to digital, has changed how information is disseminated and consumed. Political parties now have more platforms to present their policies, and, in turn, the press and the electorate have more opportunities to scrutinise pledges. This enables discussion around a broader range of manifesto commitments, which necessitates greater detail to justify them.

The Launch

Media coverage and headlines stemming from manifestos can dominate the news cycle, significantly shaping public perception. The launch events too can be significant by capturing public attention and providing an avenue for party leaders to directly communicate their vision for the country to voters.

The release of the Lib Dem manifesto on Monday saw articles centring on how ‘Ed Davey took to the roller coasters to briefly escape the twists and turns of politics,’ illustrating just how crucial these launches are, not least for smaller political parties who tend to command less media attention.

The Conservatives, who unveiled their manifesto on Tuesday at Silverstone Circuit, stirred up quite a media buzz as well. Utilising the venue’s theme, with slogans like, ‘revving up for growth’ and getting Britain ‘back on track,’ the launch further highlighted how the media shapes the narrative for the electorate, regardless of the party’s intent.

Do Manifestos Win Elections?

Clearly, manifestos lead the media agenda when they are released, providing a rare opportunity for a party to, in detail, sell the electorate a future for the country. Once the manifesto has been published, it also provides opposing parties opportunities to attack and scrutinise their policies. Poorly crafted or controversial policies can dominate headlines and sway undecided voters against a party.

Customarily manifestos in the UK are costed internally, albeit third party organisations like think tanks may analyse costings independently. Claims that a manifesto is ‘fully costed’ have led to controversy in the past when parties have been criticised for unrealistic financial projections or hidden costs. In this election, both major parties have been accused of failing to cost their manifestos appropriately with the Telegraph calling Labour’s costing ‘unserious’ and the IFS stating Conservative plans generate ‘a degree of scepticism’.

According to polling from YouGov, leadership capability and shared core values are considered more influential for most voters and are a greater deciding factor. However, a manifesto riddled with poorly polled or unrealistic promises can undermine a party’s credibility.

Like the leader’s debate, a manifesto is just one piece of the electoral puzzle, yet it sets the campaign’s tone, frames policy agendas, and provides a benchmark for future performance, making it a crucial element of democratic accountability.

Parties must approach their manifesto with strategic precision, recognising that although it might not win an election on its own, it can certainly lose you one.






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