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The Professor Will See You Now: political parties doing what they promise

(Alamy)

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. Here: political parties doing what they promise

Each of us has at least one book which has changed the way we see the world – and if you don’t, you should. One of mine is Do Parties Make a Difference? first published in 1980, which I read as an undergraduate. It was the first time I’d found someone trying to measure what governments and oppositions actually did and, by doing so, show that many of the things I’d thought about politics were just plain wrong.

Among its many findings were two that can initially seem contradictory: a) that, despite the old saw about politicians and broken promises, political parties have a good record of implementing their manifestos, but also b) changes in the party of government at election time have only a limited impact on the direction of public policy. 

A policy isn’t a policy isn’t a policy

This apparent contradiction is relatively easily explained. Manifestos only amount to a small proportion of what governments do; most public policy is stuff that governments would be carrying out anyway or indeed which they have inherited from their predecessors. 

It’s not that elections don’t matter, but that they make less difference than the almost constant focus on the electoral battle would indicate, or that parties sometimes pretend. 
As the book’s author said elsewhere: “Policymakers are heirs before they are choosers.” It takes an awfully long time and a lot of effort to turn the oil tanker.

The last 40 or so years have seen an enormous amount of research examining some of these claims in more detail, but the finding about parties delivering on their promises has stood up especially well, in the UK and elsewhere. 

To take one example, a recently published piece of research found 258 separate pledges in the 2017 Conservative manifesto. Even the short-lived and tumultuous May government, operating as it was without a parliamentary majority, managed to implement almost 70 per cent of the things it had said it would do. Hurrah for them.

Yet those 258 pledges were not all of equal value. One was to leave the EU. Another was to require schools to have a single point of contact with mental health services. These are both important issues, but it seems unlikely they are seen by many people as equally important. 

Yet how to measure importance? In this case, the researchers asked the public which policies they saw as more central to the party’s overall platform. Do that, and things look noticeably less rosy. 

The four most important pledges in the 2017 Conservative manifesto – as judged by the public – were to leave the EU; to reduce annual net immigration to below 100,000; to leave the customs union; and to leave the single market. Collectively, those four pledges made up almost 30 per cent of the manifesto’s overall weight – and yet by the end of the 2017 parliament none of them had been implemented. Of what the public saw as the top 10 pledges, only four were carried out.

Weighing things equally, the May government managed to deliver 69 per cent of its manifesto. Weigh those pledges by their perceived significance, and that drops to below half, or 48 per cent.

My suspicion is that in terms of public perception of whether that government did what it said, things would be even worse – because in reality the public won’t even be aware of some of the less significant promises which might have been fulfilled, but they will have noticed the very high profile ones which weren’t. To misquote Gertrude Stein: a policy isn’t a policy isn’t a policy. 

 

Your further reading for this week: R Rose, Do Parties Make A Difference? (1980); J Mellon et al, Which Promises Actually Matter? Election Pledge Centrality and Promissory Representation, Political Studies (2021)

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