Manifestos, vigilance and liberty

By Jill Segger
March 26, 2016

How did you vote in the general election? For what you believed in? Out of custom and loyalty? Holding your nose? For the 'least worst'? Did you consider the manifestos? Did you even read the manifestos?

I justify this interrogation by asking myself the same questions. And I must admit that the answer to the last one would probably have been 'no' had my work not required it. I am not proud of this.

The Conservative manifesto made plain that it would raise the threshold at which higher rate income tax is paid to £50,000 and that it would cut £12 billion from the welfare budget. Maybe those Conservative MPs and voters who have now expressed opposition to the juxtaposition of these factors in the budget had simply not being paying attention. But it is more likely that they simply failed to make the connection between two promises of which they approved. That is, until Iain Duncan Smith's resignation put it on every news bulletin and raised a distaste for the brazen injustice of taking from people in real need to fund a tax break for the more comfortably off.

That distaste is encouraging. Despite the government's considerable success over the past six years in making an association in the public mind between the receipt of benefits and 'scrounging', an essential decency has come into play. It is, though, something of a disgrace that the false association went largely unexamined for so long, causing such deep fear and distress to so many disabled and sick people. Along with job-seekers and insecurely employed workers, they have born the burden of the neo-liberal ideological obsession with a low tax, low welfare society.

Blame for failure to examine the inherent consequences of the policies laid out in any party manifesto must remain squarely with the electorate. To imagine that whatever your party does must be for the good, is to abdicate moral responsibility. No political party can have the answer to every issue it encounters, whatever its loyalists' protestations to the contrary. All political philosophies have their weak spots and just governance can only be predicated on willingness to acknowledge this – an acknowledgement as important for the voter as for the professional politician.

If the devil is in the detail of a budget, the damage may be in the seductive generalities of a manifesto. Pre-election statements, promises and omissions (forced academisation, anyone?) are not legally binding. But they are a route map for a government's direction and set the tone of their relationship with voters. Those parts which reach most voters' consciousness are carefully designed to hit what their authors hope to be the reflexes of their core vote. Where that core vote – and those outside it – find themselves misled or let down, trust is damaged and government diminished.

To return to the questions posed at the beginning of this piece, the nose-holding and 'least worst' options are largely the outcome of a dysfunctional electoral system. As long as we acquiesce in the democratic absurdity of the first-past-the-post method, we will be casualties of the deliberate dog-whistles and opportunistic omissions of election manifestos. Whether you are outraged at the Chancellor's cynical and heartless treatment of some of our most vulnerable citizens, or astounded at what many Conservative councillors have described as the academy schools “diktat”, remember that only 24 per cent of the electorate voted this government into office.

Don't forget either, the relationship between liberty and vigilance.

* You can access all Ekklesia's commentary and analysis on the 2016 Budget here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/budget2016

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.