Judging by the recent reception of the 2015 party manifestos, no one expected anything more than unattainable commitments and unanswered questions. Indeed, “lie” and “communist” seem to still be the two words most commonly associated with the term manifesto, neither of which are necessarily the most sought-after characterisations from the perspective of a western politician.

Lies, damned lies, manifestos

At first glance, the mass-produced pamphlets of dishonesty have little to offer apart from giving journalists something to write about. The panic alarm has been pressed and the battle buses are running full speed ahead, which shows in David Cameron’s promises to buy every British citizen a house and Ed Miliband’s pledges of no extra borrowing and no spending cuts. For the SNP everything is the fault of the English, and for Ukip it’s the immigrants who have caused all this mess the country is in. These slogans clearly offer nothing concrete.

Erasing any remaining validity left in the already vague election promises is the prospect of a hung parliament or another coalition government. Given this, there is little chance that any of the parties could fulfil their pledges as they now stand in their manifestos, which leaves the public with two options: either to accept that there must be compromises in order to get anything done or to let the governing parties to blame each other on failed election promises in five years’ time (as demonstrated this spring by the most recent coalition). The bonus choice, of course, is not to care.

Manifestations of broken promises

When writing about the topic of deception and election promises, it really is difficult not to think about Nick Clegg. Thanks to the tuition fee U-turn and the disastrous Lib Dem crash in the 2014 European elections, the centurion of the liberals has earned himself a lasting legacy as a man who has no backbone. Ask any Liberal Democrat what they think the party accomplished during the five years of coalition government, and the answer is always the same: same-sex marriage. It was certainly a fantastic victory for equality and progress, as well as a political success for the Lib Dems, but despite the importance of this one triumph (which was only included in a separate LGBT manifesto in 2010) the majority of the party’s election pledges were practically just walked over by the Tories.

The Conservative manifesto, on the other hand, promised to scrap the Human Rights Act, to stop the closures of maternity wards, and to cap migrant flows. Yet, the party that is now claiming to be the competence to Labour’s chaos, failed to deliver these pledges and left with consequences such as the 163% increase in food bank usage, bedroom tax, and raised VAT (which historian George Osborne promised not to do before the 2010 elections). In addition, former Conservative peer Lord Skidelsky attacked the party’s 2015 manifesto by saying that it was the “mother of all lies.” This year’s manifesto features the Second Coming of both the non-EU migrant cap pledge and the promise to scrap the Human Rights Act. Is the second time the charm?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both blamed the coalition for not being able to deliver their election pledges fully. Photo by: Nick Clegg

Guidelines or shopping lists?

Does any of this talk about the contents of these manifestos matter in the end, when the people reading them are only either hardcore party supporters or work for the media? After all, even Nigel Farage has claimed that he never read the 2010 Ukip manifesto, while the general public is so tired that they just assume lies without ever reading the booklets. Floating voters are hardly influenced if they don’t read the manifestos. And why would they? It is much easier and less time-consuming to just to skim through the cherry-picked summaries of biased media outlets and then vote for the candidate who has the best haircut. If the parties really wanted the electorate to pay attention to their manifestos, the promises would be presented in a list format with a clickbait headline on Buzzfeed.

Nevertheless, election manifestos do serve one important function: they gather the intended policies and direction of a party in one place. Especially if the days of single-party majority governments are over, it becomes even more important to understand these manifestos as guidelines rather than a shopping list that will be completely fulfilled. If nothing else, they will provide red lines for coalition-making and at least the main aspirations of each party running for office.

Politicians have never been particularly good at keeping their promises, and we shouldn’t expect that to drastically change any time soon. But what we can do is worry less about the small print specifics that will never be fulfilled and focus more on the broad-brush strokes that will set the tone of the next five years. Only then will it make sense to scrutinise what the parties have promised in their manifestos.