First published in Clarity: May 5, 2015
Labour unveiled its policy stone over the weekend. Apparently, if Ed Miliband is elected Prime Minister, he’s going to have it planted in the garden of Downing Street. Of all the places to choose, they have to pick one that is away from the public eye. Will it form the centrepiece of a Zen garden, to which Ed will retreat for quiet contemplation? It’s a bit of a change from the 1997 pledge card. Even John Prescott would have trouble fitting this pledge stone in his wallet (Prescott still keeps his battered 1997 card in there).
In February 2013, The New Statesman asked whether the pledge card had had its day. The art of boiling down an entire election manifesto to easily marketed bite size chunks, which had reached its zenith in 1997, was becoming an anachronism. The 1997 card, Gavin Kelly wrote, was a series of modest policies that attempted to say something significant about the character of the incoming government. The 2005 card had been bigger, baggier, and blander. As for 2010? “There is possibly no one in the country, including the authors, who could recount Labour’s key promises.”
On that occasion, Kelly highlighted that the pledge card idea was a leitmotif for the nature of the relationship between the state, civil society, and individuals. And in the age of “broken promises” was it still proper for the government to attract voters by making offers with them over a basket of policies. He concluded his article by asking:
“Challenges abound for Labour (as with the other parties) as it contemplates its 2015 version of a “contract with Britain”. One is avoiding a patch-work of specific policy promises aimed at different sections of the electorate which fail to add up to a majoritarian agenda with wide appeal. Another pitfall would be to issue an entirely defensive and uninspiring set of pledges centred on areas of spending that would be protected from further cuts. And then there is the risk of feeding expectations of another phase of centrally-driven delivery commitments reliant on an increase in public spending that isn’t going to occur.”
Ahead of the 2015 election, the Labour Party appears to have settled on a solution. Simply offer a big print version of the pledge card. John Prescott’s included, can get tatty and worn down. Carved in stone, a pledge has a sense of permanence. Like when ASDA used to have its Price Promise engraved on a stone tablet, which stood in the entrance to every store. Since July 1994, they have pledged to refund shoppers the difference if they can buy their groceries cheaper elsewhere. And they have largely kept to that promise. That is staying power! Who can say that about a politics?
We have entered a new age of pledge card politics. Let us erect a Labour “Pledge Stone” in every ASDA store. At least that way, with their promises out in the open, the Labour Party might not be able to go back on its pledges as the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives did. A poster stating the pledge “No Rise in Tuition Fees” or “No Top Down Reorganisation of the NHS” is tomorrows chip paper. An eight foot high stone tablet is much harder to dispose of. Go one better, have them installed in leisure centres and cinemas, and if Labour are elected, in the front gardens of each cabinet minister!