The Manifesto Problem

An excellent piece from Helen de Cruz, an academic at Oxford Brookes University,┬áhas been doing the rounds. The article explores the reasons why so many pro-EU voters ended up choosing Labour, despite the party’s evident “hard Brexit” stance. This is based on data from surveys conducted by de Cruz in pro-EU groups on Facebook. It lands on the conclusion that those who lent their support to Jeremy Corbyn’s party

did vote Labour for tactical reasons, but they were also attracted by the Labour manifesto and identified with the party’s anti-austerity message. They voted for Labour in spite of its Brexit stance, not because they were all of a sudden pro Brexit.

Anecdotally, this chimes very closely with the decisions many of my friends and family made in choosing Labour. They were closer to the Liberal Democrats on the issue of Brexit, but saw a tactical vote for Labour as more important given the danger of a large Conservative majority.

Jezza and Maccy D

I could not personally agree with this stance. While I was terrified of a renewed mandate for Theresa May (who I’ve written about extensively as a massive threat to the United Kingdom and to the world), I saw a polarisation of the UK’s domestic politics along with an alignment around ‘hard Brexit’ as the worst possible outcome. In short, this was an election in which Brexit was the be-all, end-all issue; however popular Labour’s flagship policies may have been (and they were undoubtedly popular, rightly or wrongly) they were meaningless against a backdrop of a poor deal – or no deal – with the EU.

Of course, that’s not how the election campaign went down. Both Labour and the Tories were allowed to get away with either limiting their references to Brexit or avoiding any kind of specificity on what precisely they planned to do during negotiations.

In Labour’s case, this vagueness was so complete that the position taken by Corbyn and John McDonnell since the election – a reiteration of the party’s manifesto statements on the single market and freedom of movement – has been met with dismay by a lot of Remainers.

There seems to be a commonly held belief among some voters that party manifestos, far from being complete plans for government, are a kind of pick-and-mix. I thought I would test this through a Twitter poll. Given my followers are predominantly pro-EU, liberal types with a disproportionate interest in politics national and global, I expected the answer to be pretty clear, but instead it was surprisingly split:

This seems to be the most salient question arising from this election. Is the Labour party’s leadership entitled to claim that its voters supported its stance on Brexit? This obviously has huge implications should the embattled Theresa May eventually decide that it’s time to go and a new election eventuate. Because, after all, Labour massively outperformed expectations despite adopting a stance on Brexit that, in isolation, clearly alienates a large number (perhaps the majority) of its voters.

The broader question, of course, is what manifestos are for. They are important for parliamentary procedure, because the Salisbury Doctrine, which limits the ability of the House of Lords to contradict government policy, is based on them. As such, it is essential that parties feel able to rest on the support of voters for their manifestos as a whole; yet this election has thrown up more than ever the confusion that can ensue as a consequence.

It is probably about time we revisited the idea of deliberative democracy in broad terms as a theory of civics. Democracies surely cannot survive this amount of cognitive dissonance for long.