General election campaigns tend to follow a pretty predictable pattern. Week One has the Prime Minister announce the date of polling day. Week Two has the parties publish their manifestos. And the rest of the campaign has the politicians tearing into each other’s plans with the leaders flying round the country between public meetings, photo opportunities and broadcasting studios claiming that only they can save the nation and that the others will take us all to hell in a handcart.

This is Week Two and the major parties have now all published their manifestos. But how much do these supposedly vital documents really matter?

It is easy to make the case that they hardly matter at all. There’s no evidence electors have their vote swayed by reading them. Indeed very few people bother to read them at all. This time round Labour’s manifesto is available only online, though the party is ready to print copies "if there is sufficient demand for it". (They don’t seem to be holding their breath.) The Tories’ document is a hardback book of 130 pages but costs a fiver so it’s unlikely to be flying off the shelves at supermarket checkouts.

Yet manifestos do perform an important democratic function, perhaps increasingly so as campaigns become more and more obsessed with manipulating images, creating mood and debating the relative clothes styles of the leaders’ wives. Manifestos provide something solid among all the razzmatazz. They provide the material over which our would-be leaders can actually argue. And they provide commitments to which we can ultimately hold to account those we elect.

This function of providing a checklist against which we can judge governments can itself lead to farce, however. Back in the 1960s when Harold Wilson’s government was going through a very unpopular patch and he himself was suffering from a reputation as something of a trickster whose word could not be trusted (what’s different, you may ask), the Prime Minister decided something needed to be done to restore his standing. He made a speech in which he solemnly announced that his government had already fulfilled over three hundred of its manifesto commitments and that only a few remained to be completed. The fact that almost all of the three hundred ticked off were tiddling little things of no great importance whereas the few that remained were the ones that really mattered (full employment, the death of inflation, world peace – that sort of thing) seemed to be an incidental detail it would have been rude to point out. His audience applauded accordingly.

There is also a sometimes overlooked constitutional function which manifestos provide. Under our unwritten constitution precedent matters a lot. And it has become a matter of precedent that the House of Lords will not ultimately throw out a piece of legislation which the government of the day promised in its manifesto. The manifesto creates the mandate. So if a party wants to be sure that it can get its ideas turned into law it’s a good idea to have trailed the ideas in its manifesto.

So how do the latest crop of manifestos look? Labour was the first to produce its plans last Monday. Gordon Brown described it as a "post-crisis" manifesto, a notion intended to remind people that (as he sees it) he was the man who got us through the crisis and so he is the man to offer us a "progressive future". Central to Labour’s ideas are reform of the public services and democratic reform.

On the first, Labour proposes to give new rights to parents and patients using public services. Parents will gain the right to change the running of their local schools if enough of them are dissatisfied. Patients will have a guarantee of cancer test results within a week and a maximum wait of 18 weeks for specialist treatment. Police forces that "fail" will be open to being taken over by other forces which are successful. On democratic reform, a referendum is promised on a wholly elected House of Lords and on changing the voting system for electing MPs.

Labour plans to increase the minimum wage in relation to rising earning (not just prices, as now) and has committed itself not to raise income tax rates or national insurance (though there is no such commitment on VAT). But in these financially straitened times there are no new spending commitments.

The Tories published their manifesto on Tuesday. This built on David Cameron’s notion of a “Big Society” rather than a big state. The manifesto has the title “Invitation to Join the Government” and the idea is that people and communities will be encouraged to take more control over what the state now runs. Public sector workers will be enabled to turn their public services into cooperatives. Power will be given to parents and local communities to set up their own schools. Constituents will gain the power to recall and sack their MPs. Police chiefs will be elected. In local government, referendums will be possible on local issues if 5% of voters demand them. The Tories call this "People Power".

On tax and spending the Conservatives are sticking to their plans to axe most of Alistair Darling’s planned increase in national insurance contributions next year and to raise the threshold at which inheritance tax is paid to a million pounds. They also say they will reduce the "bulk" of the huge deficit in government spending by the end of the forthcoming parliament.

The deficit was what the Liberal Democrats (on Wednesday) made the centrepiece of their pitch to the voters. Only his party (said their leader, Nick Clegg) can be trusted to be serious about tackling this central issue because the LibDems alone (he claimed) actually had a detailed plan for dealing with it. So he announced specific cuts in government spending – on tax credits, on the child trust fund, on the extent of winter fuel payments and on the number of ‘suits’ employed in the Ministry of Defence. He also announced that the LibDems would raise the threshold at which people start to pay income tax to £10,000. That would mean many low income families would pay no income tax at all. Top earners would gain too but they would be penalised by losing tax advantages such as concessions on their pension savings and having their income taxed as capital.

Mr Clegg said the theme of his manifesto was fairness: fair taxes, fairness for all children in their education, more jobs in a greener economy and cleaning up politics.

Of course now that the main manifestos have been published they have all been torn apart by political adversaries. Labour has been accused of having no new ideas, of not being serious about reducing the deficit and of having little to say about civil liberties. The Tories are accused of advocating not so much “people power” as “DIY government” in which people would be left alone to get on with things for themselves. They are attacked too for being too vague on how they would cut the deficit.

And the Lib Dems are accused of being all things to all people. But they are always accused of that. And perhaps the most striking thing is that, so far, the other parties have been more muted in attacking the third party, with David Cameron going so far as to suggest that he agreed with a lot that was in the LibDem manifesto – it was just that voting Tory would be more likely to lead to it being put into practice. This relative politeness about the LibDems may have less to do with dispassionate analysis and more to do with the fact that both the other two parties are aware that they may have to work with Mr Clegg and his friends if the voters decide that neither of them should be entrusted with a majority.

Still, it’s early days. The slanging match has only just begun.

What’s your view? Do you think manifestos matter? Are you going to read any of them? And from what you know about what’s in them, which do you find the most impressive – or the least unimpressive?

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