Tuesday 10 March 2009

Promises, promises, and com-promises

The conflict between what parties promise in their manifestoes and what they can actually deliver in coalition government is an issue which has, not unsurprisingly, been much exercising me of late. Although it's Plaid which has come under the spotlight in the past few weeks, it's an issue which could very easily have faced other parties as well had the 2007 coalition talks ended differently. It ought to be affecting the Labour Party as well, but I suppose that their manifesto was so bland and unambitious that they didn't really have that many promises to fail on.

Parties drafting their manifestoes try to present themselves as different and distinctive when they choose which policies to highlight as key promises. The difficulty in doing that is especially acute at Assembly level, given the comparatively narrow range of powers available.

When we put our manifesto before the people of Wales in 2007, we certainly believed and intended that, given a majority of seats in the Assembly, we had a programme which we could and would fully implement over a four year term. I'm reasonably certain that the other parties felt the same way about their programmes.

In reality, of course, we didn't win a majority of seats – and nor did any other party. And in the absence of that majority, it is unrealistic to expect full implementation of our programme, particularly in coalition with a party which was fundamentally opposed to key elements of it. Indeed, one could even go further and argue that the people of Wales didn't want the full implementation of our programme - if they had wanted that, in sufficient numbers, they would have given us the mandate we needed for that.

If we expect – as I certainly do – that coalition will be the norm in Wales, then where does that leave party manifestoes? Perhaps all parties should put some sort of 'health warning' on them, making it clear that they are programmes for a majority government, but that no such programme can ever be implemented in full by a coalition involving two or more parties.

In a coalition context, manifestoes are more like 'shopping lists' which each party takes to the negotiating table when a programme for government is being hammered out. And the largest parties in any coalition are always going to get more of their manifesto included in the programme than the smaller ones – doesn't that simply reflect the relative levels of electoral support?

So some promises made at election time will inevitably turn into compromises during the process of negotiating a programme for government. That's hard for a lot of us to accept given the history of UK politics, however normal it may be in most of the rest of Europe. We're going to have to get used to it – and perhaps we all have a responsibility to do a better job of explaining to the electorate why and how some promises will become compromises.


Anonymous said...

It'd be nice if Plaid stood up to Labour and actually tried to get those policies which did make it into the 'One Wales' agreement implemented, wouldn't it though? Plaid are looking like a soft touch these days.

John Dixon said...


Anything specific in mind?