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ANALYSIS - FORWARD THINKING

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Have 60 years changed election manifestos, asks Nick Pearce ...
Have 60 years changed election manifestos, asks Nick Pearce

Party manifestos are a good guide to political history. They tell you about the major issues of the day, even if many of their promises are broken or remain unfulfilled. Their tone and style say a lot about how politics has been conducted down the years.

In 1945, Labour's manifesto was famously called Let us Face the Future. It contained evocative phrases penned by the late Michael Young, such as 'no more dole queues in order to let the Czars of Big Business remain kings in their own castles'. It committed Labour to the creation of a 'Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain', in which there would be 'food, work and homes for all'.

The Conservatives chose the rather more prosaic title, Mr Churchill's Declaration of Policy to the Electors. Its opening paragraph bemoaned the fact an election was being held at all: 'I had hoped to preserve the Coalition government,' intoned the great war leader, 'but owing to the unwillingness of the Socialist and Sinclair Liberal Parties to agree to my proposal, a general election becomes inevitable.'

Anticipating the later vogue for clear pledges, the Liberals issued a 20-point plan. Unlike the other main parties, they committed themselves to equality between the sexes and electoral reform. It didn't do them much good.

Local government barely merited a mention in these 1945 manifestos. It was assumed that councils would be responsible for delivering many of the promised services. Only in the 1970s and 1980s did local government become an issue, and even then, reform of its power and responsibilities was rarely explicit.

For example, the Conservatives pledged radical school reform in 1987. But they never said: 'We think local education authorities are rubbish and don't deserve to run anything, so we are going to let schools opt out.' In 1997, Labour pledged sweeping constitutional reforms. But the manifesto also stated that: 'Local decision-making should be less constrained by central government, and also more accountable to local people.'

Are the 2005 manifestos any different? The Liberal Democrats propose to reduce Whitehall interference and introduce a new local income tax. The Conservatives have pledged, in rather fewer words than everyone else, 'to liberate local government'. Labour focuses on neighbourhoods and city mayors, leaving the thorny issue of local government finance to Sir Michael Lyons's review.

Whatever the outcome of the election, there are good reasons to think local government will be interesting policy territory in the next parliament. Labour has learnt it can't achieve everything by central means and the other parties have more of a stake in local government.

However, council leaders must also make their case. City mayors are in vogue because London mayor Ken Livingstone has made a success of his powers. The core cities have pushed themselves to the forefront of policy through their own enterprise and determination to regenerate. Others need to do the same.

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