One of the ways we can decide who to vote for (if we haven’t been swayed by emotional biases, personalities or party affiliation) is by looking at election manifestos to see if there are any ideas worth pursuing.
The trouble is… can we really trust politicians to carry through their election promises?
All the parties end up breaking their manifesto pledges once they get into power – in the UK: Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat or SNP; it makes no difference. Nobody is immune (and as you’ll see from three of the four previous links, you can rely on a party’s political critics and opponents to highlight these broken promises, whilst ignoring their own shortcomings).
The first President Bush famously promised, “Read my lips, no new taxes” (taxes went up). The political lesson to be learnt here is that if you’re going to break a promise on taxes, you either wait until the next election, or refuse to acknowledge that you’re doing what you’re actually doing.
So, when voters are betrayed (or at least, merely let down) by these broken (or “delayed”) promises, why are they surprised? That’s what politicians do, isn’t it? But how often are manifesto pledges actually broken?
A French study by Petry and Collette (2008) found that it was quite hard to measure, and there was a wide variation in the eighteen studies they looked at (they decided that only five were any good). The studies ranged from the late 1960s to the early 21st century, across Europe and North America. By their reckoning promise-keeping varies from 45% to 85%, and that on average for every two pledges a party makes, you can expect one to be broken.
But how can anyone know what pledges will be kept and which ones will be broken? None of us can foresee future events, even if you fancy yourself as an expert. Assertions about future events, actions to be undertaken, dire consequences and so on cannot be trusted. Events can spiral out of control leading to war. Economies are so complex that even those most closely involved can fail to see looming disaster (or even understand that success might be temporary, if not illusory). Events may force parties to adapt and make new plans, but that’s no guarantee these plans will work out either.
Perhaps the best way to treat a manifesto is not a list of things a party will strive to achieve, but a wish list? We then have the problem of deciding whether it’s better to choose the most optimistic wishes we agree with, or the ideas which sound most reasonable. And given that politics is an emotional business, there’s no guarantee that the best ideas will be chosen… or even succeed.