Making of Labour's manifesto: 184 opinions – and endless meetings

It will take only a few hours for the political parties to present their manifestos, and for the political analysts to digest their contents this morning. None will be a great work of political literature. The prose will be bland, the promises vague – and yet, behind every word lies months of agonised thought, time consuming meetings, and political power-broking.

One of the issues leading politicians fight over – though not in public – is what a manifesto is for. Should it be long and detailed, or short and vague? Is it election literature, produced to attract votes, or a battle plan to be followed in the event of victory?

Labour's National Policy Forum was created by Tony Blair to involve enough party members in the process to make it seem democratic, without letting it slip out of the leader's control. The NPF is far too big to decide anything. It has 184 members, including 55 elected representatives of constituency parties, a minimum of 30 trade union officials, and 23 MPs or MEPs.

The NPF is broken down into five or six policy commissions. The most important commission, which thrashed out economic policy, was headed by the Chancellor Alistair Darling, and Cath Speight, chief equalities officer for the Unite union.

The documents which these commissions draw go up go to the NPF for approval, and are agreed by the Labour Party conference, and poured into the mix that becomes the party manifesto. This process came to a head last Thursday, when 70 or 80 Cabinet ministers, MPs, union leaders, researchers and others packed into Church House, near Westminster Abbey for the ritual 'Clause 5' meeting.

The meeting's title refers to an entry in the rule book which lays down that the manifesto must be agreed by a joint meeting of the Cabinet and the party's National Executive committee, plus the heads of the big unions and others on the invitation list. They sat at tables fanning out diagonally from the head table where Gordon Brown sat, flanked by Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman.

One participant in this process said: "Asking how the manifesto is written is like asking the Schleswig-Holstein question: only three people ever knew the answer, and one of them is dead. They kill us with kindness. There are long, long meetings and a mountain of paper, and reports which are very useful for sorting out wobbly tables, and you can get a word changed here or there, but you cannot challenge the principles. Gordon controls it all." The idea of short, tightly controlled manifestoes with minimal policy detail is not fashionable over at Conservative headquarters. In 2005, they offered an almost policy-free manifesto, running to just 7,000 words, their shortest since 1966. They lost, just as they had in 1966.

The brains behind the document to be presented today is Oliver Letwin, the former shadow Chancellor. He is 10 years older than David Cameron, but shares a similar background and has similar views on the need to modernise.

When the party leadership became vacant, in 2005, Letwin was one of the first to encourage Cameron to run, and he sketched out a scheme for opening up the whole process of policy making. It was more public than Labour's – though not necessarily any more democratic. There were 18 months of "open" policy reviews, which produced over a dozen shadow Cabinet green papers covering every important political topic.

Outsiders were encouraged to take part. The young billionaire Zac Goldsmith, who joined the party only in 2005, was made deputy chairman of the Quality of Life commission – as an indication that Cameron wanted people to believe they could vote blue and get green.

Not all the ideas churned out by these commissions have made it to the manifesto the Conservatives will publish today. Some, such as Zac Goldsmith's proposal for parking charges in out-of-town supermarkets, were ruled obvious vote losers. The rest were taken over by Letwin and James O'Shaughnessy, the head of research.

As an intellectual, Letwin tends towards the Bennite view of what the manifesto process is for. He thinks of it as a "blueprint for government," a means of ensuring Cabinet ministers are not overwhelmed or taken by surprise as they enter office for the first time.

But with an election approaching, the whole process threatened to be overwhelmed by the immediate need to set the political agenda with unexpected policy announcements that would put the government on the defensive, such as George Osborne's promise to cancel the proposed rise in national insurance. There is also a powerful political argument for keeping the Tories' intentions vague, because too much detail about how they plan to cut public spending could frighten the voters. The document that emerges may therefore be less detailed that Mr Letwin would have liked.

The other political parties do not have to agonise over how much to tell the voters about their real intentions. Their task is to put together a document that makes them sound like serious players, and with enough firm commitments to keep their supporters motivated.

The Liberal Democrats set up a nine-member manifesto working group in summer 2008 headed by Nick Clegg's chief of staff, the Inverness MP Danny Alexander. They met about once a month for the next 18 months, drawing up papers which were presented for approval to the shadow Cabinet and the Federal policy Committee.

But, as with the other people's, the person who controls the final content of the manifesto is the leader, Nick Clegg. He chaired the meeting of the Federal Policy Committee which finally approved its content, on 30 March.

The Green Party, believing in grass-roots democracy, tries to do things a little differently. This time, they set up a website and invited suggestions from party members as to what should be in the manifesto. Professor Andy Dobson, a political scientist at the University of Keele, wrote the first draft a year ago, in case there was an early election. Last autumn it was taken out and dusted down, by Caroline Lucas and various senior party figures. The final version was approved by the party's Regional Council which met in Oxford on January 23. It will be published on Thursday.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Sport
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Sport
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Arts and Entertainment
A top literary agent has compared online giant Amazon to Isis
arts + entsAndrew Wylie has pulled no punches in criticism of Amazon
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities