Where have all the good slogans gone?
These are not party manifestos, but annual reports.
Once upon a time there were politicians, and political parties. They produced manifestos (def: declaration of principles – a public written declaration of principles, policies, and objectives, especially one issued by a political movement or candidate), filled with wild promises and garnished with hyperbolic slogans. If election time meant nothing else, at least it was vaguely entertaining.
Now there are managers, and also-rans. At election time they produce annual reports (def: yearly review of activities – a document that outlines and analyses the activities, especially the financial dealings, of a company or other organisation over the past year), which lay out in microscopic detail where every penny would be spent if only they were running UK plc. They make no wild promises, only suggestions for resource allocation and cost-cutting measures. And the slogans are crap.
New Labour has gone for a touch of Stalinist rhetoric with a modern design twist. ‘Forward not back’ proclaims every header, the subheading of every chapter and the concluding paragraph of every chapter. Got the message yet? New Labour wants to go ‘Forward to increased prosperity, not back to boom and bust’; ‘Forward to personalised learning, not back to mass failure’; ‘Forward to new opportunities in old age, not back to poverty and insecurity’; ‘Forward to international leadership, not back to isolation and powerlessness’. And if that’s not enough, New Labour is also promising to take us ‘Forward to Olympic gold, not back to cuts in sport and culture’. Or as Scarlett O’Hara might have more succinctly put it, ‘Tomorrow is another day’.
The vacuity of New Labour’s slogan (who is campaigning for Britain to go ‘Back not forwards?’) is matched by the Lib Dems’ desperate insistence on keeping it real. ‘Liberal Democrats: The REAL alternative’, proclaims its front page, with a personalised message from party leader Charles Kennedy. ‘Britain has real problems. Liberal Democrats are putting forward real solutions. Liberal Democrats offer a real alternative’ – and there’s a link to www.therealalternative.org. If the Lib Dems have to try so hard to convince themselves that they are not a fantasy party, one wonders how the British electorate could ever imagine a Lib Dem government. Not that this is on the cards, of course – Kennedy’s message sums up the party’s ambition: ‘Every sign is that we can win more votes and elect more Liberal Democrat MPs’. So the ‘real’ alternative to New Labour’s regime is to have a few more yellow MPs elected in protest against Tony Bliar.
The Conservative Party’s creepy ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ invites only one response. The manifesto is strikingly short – but it would be a peculiar individual who agreed with more than a few of the Tories’ random collection of opportunisms. A more accurate slogan for the Tories would be ‘Are we thinking something that any Daily Mail reader has once thought over the past four years and have we managed to get it all down on paper?’ Party leader Michael Howard headlines his introduction to the manifesto ‘The British Dream’. In his dreams.
Beyond the slogans is the small print. New Labour’s is really, really small, with over 100 pages detailing every bit of good news that the government could possibly take credit for (‘[V]isits to our national museums and galleries have risen by 75 per cent; Deaths from heart disease are down by 27 per cent and cancer deaths are down by 12 per cent’) and attempting to blame everything but the common cold on Tory rule pre-1997 (‘The time to destroy MRSA [the hospital ‘superbug’] was in the early 1990s – when only five per cent of the bacteria were resistant to antibiotics’).
The manifesto boasts of having issued ‘nearly 66,000 fixed penalty notices’, bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of political achievements. It never wastes an opportunity to highlight the instrumental benefits of those artsy-fartsy activities that people have some kind of strange affection for: ‘Art and culture are valuable for their own sake; they are also crucial to our national prosperity…from computer games to the fine arts, British talent is gaining global recognition and generating real wealth.’ And the manifesto is keen to show that it is right up to date with the latest whims of celebrity chefs:
‘We are introducing an independent School Food Trust, better training for dinner ladies and Ofsted inspection of healthy eating. We will legislate for tougher standards of nutrition for school meals and will encourage schools to teach more about healthy eating. We will ban certain products that are high in fat/salt content from school meals and ensure that fresh fruit and vegetables are part of every school meal. We will encourage secondary schools to keep pupils on the premises to ensure that they have a healthy meal.’
The Tories also claim that ‘We support improvements to school dinners, and will go further by banning junk food in schools’. On every other issue, too, the parties scrap over the same narrow, banal terrain. The obsession with clean hospitals, police numbers, asylum figures and antisocial behaviour makes the party manifestos barely distinguishable from each other in their aims and objectives. The only way in which the parties can hope to show their relative advantage is through a bizarre combination of bean-counting and getting personal.
New Labour’s gramatically-garbled chapter on the economy (‘Rising prosperity in an opportunity society’) is a tedious balance-sheet attempting to show, penny-on-penny, how things have got better since the dark days of the Tories. Did you know that ‘by October 2005 families with children will be on average £1,400 a year better off in real terms’? Does it feel like it? Do you care? Are you bowled over by the party’s ambition ‘to raise the minimum wage to £5.05 from October 2005 and £5.35 from October 2006′?
Perhaps not – though it’s slightly more exciting than the Tories’ insistence that it will give the British people ‘value for money’. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have taken the notion of the redistribution of wealth literally, with a table indicating exactly where they would take money from to fund their own proposals:
WE OPPOSE: Compulsory ID cards
WE PROPOSE: Spending the money on 10,000 more police
WE OPPOSE: £1.5 billion on the child trust fund
WE PROPOSE: £1.5 billion towards reducing class sizes
If ever there was any doubt that voting has become a consumer activity, an exercise in making petty choices between largely identical policies, the ‘we’re cheapest’ approach has put those doubts to rest.
But at least the CEOs of the struggling small businesses that are today’s political parties are trying to put a human face to things. The Tories started it, with their impossible aim of humanising Howard. Read it and cringe: ‘I’m in politics to give something back to the country which gave so much to me. As the child of immigrants, as a state school pupil, as the first person in my family to go to university, I am driven by a profound sense of pride in Britain…. For me the heart of politics is all about people – their hopes and aspirations.’
All three manifestos have been overtaken by a handwriting frenzy. The Tory manifesto is filled with the now-famous handwritten questions that have dominated its poster campaigns (‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’, ‘I mean, how hard is it to keep a hospital clean?’) – presumably because writing down their frustrations is what ‘real people’ do. The Labour manifesto is prefaced with Tony Blair’s ‘my personal message’ – predictably, the message says nothing and is very, very short. Those who produced the Lib Dems’ manifesto have clearly gained a new scanner, as the document is peppered with personal statements, photos and signatures from its spokespeople, and Charles Kennedy’s message on the front ends with a handwritten assurance that ‘We’re on your side’.
This attempt at personalisation is an attempt to connect with the electorate through photographs, in the knowledge that the manifestos will leave us all cold. In fact, the only message it succeeds in getting across is alright, at least they can all write. But there’s more to politics, and life, than basic literacy and accounting skills.
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