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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Big idea risks leaving us with no idea

The Conservatives launched their 2010 Manifesto today, boldly entitled "Your Invitation to Join the Government of Britain". A manifesto with what David Cameron has called a "big idea" - that it's "we, the people" who change things not the state. With a pledge that "we're all in this together" and that the current climate demands honesty that government doesn't get it right all the time and the empowering people is the central change that Britain needs.

It was pretty strong stuff - at the most passionate point in the launch, he claimed that the governments of the last 40 years had got it wrong, had "taken people for fools" in pretending that government knows best. Including Thatcher and Major?

In promoting philosophy or concept above hard proposals or policy, the Tories are gambling big time. The answer to the key PR question of "what's the headline?" was clearly meant to be "Power to the people - Tories say we're all in this together". The essentially philosophical argument that a state that does less is better than a state that is interventionist was clearly intended to be the take-away message.

Of the interviews I've seen since the launch (including a return to politics for Chris Grayling) - this philosophical approach gives more mystery rather than clarity to an already ill-defined Tory message. I would have thought that the key goal of the Tory manifesto would be finally to provide some real meat on the bones - to pull off the trick of the 2007 Conservative Party Conference and provide a few memorable policies which answer voter's questions of "OK, the Tories are for change, but what does that change mean in practice?". It was hard policy that should have won the day today - but instead the philosophy dominated. It was a manifesto that sparks debate, not a rallying of voters behind a clear plan for change.

However committed the Tories are to this new philosophy and however laudable it may be - their change is more of style than of substance. It didn't answer the Tories main questions. What change? Where the substance? Even if the substance is there (and I haven't read its 130 odd pages) - the headline messages are not ones to persuade swing voters. A call for action assumes that voters are engaged. They are not. They are disillusioned and the answer to the expenses scandal is not "well, OK, we do get things wrong and we need more of your help to do it".

And Grayling struggled to defend it to Adam Boulton. Power to the people is all very well - Margaret Thatcher flirted with it - but what if they demand too much (very possible with no money in the coffers) or what if Cameron and his government don't agree. I believe that people want better government - properly empowered local government - not for the buck to be passed to them as citizens. Citizen action groups, referendums on council tax skirt round the issue.

Power to the people - real and meaningful power to the people - is delivered via bold democratic reform. The manifesto delivers none of that. Cameron claimed that politicians have promised too much in the past. This change to society is hardly conservative or shy in its promises. The challenges of government could quickly puncture his big vision of big society if he ends up ignoring it or not giving up real power.

Above all, I am certain that this manifesto will be seen as an opportunity missed. What the Tories needed was clarity. We didn't get it. It's a manifesto that might help the Tories limp across the line. But nothing more.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 15

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