The test in this election campaign is not so much which party represents change, but which is adapting most effectively to dramatically changed circumstances. The economic and political crises that erupted simultaneously during the last Parliament demand almost revolutionary change in relation to the role of government and the conduct of politics. The manifestos are the clearest, most detailed indication of how far the parties have made the leap to the new economic and political era that was thrust upon them during the previous Parliament.
There is quite a bit of talk at the moment about how few voters read the manifestos. Perhaps none of them does. Even so, these are documents of pivotal importance, more significant than the exchanges that will take place in this week's televised debate with the three leaders when millions will tune in. Contrary to the thrust of the questioning on yesterday's Today programme they matter because they provide a fairly accurate guide as to what will happen if a party is elected. Look back to the Conservative manifestos of the 1980s and Labour's programmes from 1997 onwards and they are important previews of what followed as well as being useful summaries of where the parties stood at the time. If a policy is in a manifesto there is a high chance it will be implemented, for good or bad. The council house sales, the privatisations and the poll tax were in the Conservatives vote-winning election programmes. New Labour's cautious incremental tentativeness is a common theme of its earlier manifestos. The ones being launched this week are worth a look. They tell us a lot.
Labour's manifesto shows how the economic crisis has liberated its fearful leadership at least in terms of language. As Ed Miliband pointed out in an interview yesterday, there is an argument running through the manifesto about the role of government. Ever since a Republican administration in the US felt compelled in the early autumn of 2008 to intervene in the country's economy on a gargantuan scale, Gordon Brown has felt a little more relaxed about hailing the importance of government as a benevolent force. After all, if President Bush in his dying days discovered that government could make a difference there was space for nervy ministers here to put a wider case.
So part of the manifesto was about highlighting the economic arguments that have led to a fragile recovery and might sustain it, the saving of the banks, the fiscal stimulus that is scheduled to continue for a bit longer and support for economic activism.
The argument extends to the further reform of public services, where the complex issue of who is accountable to whom is set out more clearly with both users and government acquiring new responsibilities. Partly the Government is pledged to guarantee certain services, especially in the NHS, a direct line of accountability. Other institutions will be allowed to take over failing schools and neighbouring police forces will run those that are deemed to be failing. Peter Mandelson labelled the proposals as New Labour Plus, an interesting proclamation because it could mean anything at all: Plus what exactly? Some commentators have hailed the changes as "Blairite". That will delight Brown, who wants to prevent the Conservatives from claiming this particular reforming mantle.
But this whole narrative is absurd. Because some have bought the false idea that Brown was "anti-reform" they assume that any proposed changes must be "Blairite". In fact the reforms are closer to the idea of managed choice that Brown sought after he had announced the big increases in spending on the NHS in 2002. There are still clear lines of accountability to the centre, but other providers can take responsibility for the running of services and users can trigger changes.
The Government's response to the economic crisis was forged tentatively. The reforms of public services are a further attempt at re-definition in a long running saga. The constitutional changes are potentially more radical than any of the other policies although their appearance is based partly on expedient motives. Brown almost mumbled his support for a change in the voting system during his speech to last year's Labour conference. One of his advisers told me subsequently that Brown would make much more of the change in the Queen's Speech debate towards the end of last year, when he would state that the forthcoming election would be the last under First-Past-The-Post if Labour were re-elected.
As it turned out Brown did not mention a single word on the subject in that particular speech. But personal wariness cannot wipe out the commitment this time around and some of his colleagues are genuine enthusiasts who would like to go further. In 1997, Labour was pledged to hold a referendum on electoral reform but Tony Blair made no commitment as to his own position. Now Labour is pledged to campaigning for a reform to the voting system. This is a big change and one that might still become a factor of some significance in the event of a hung parliament. The Liberal Democrats have spent more or less the last hundred years waiting for electoral reform. Are they going to turn away if a referendum becomes another so-called guarantee?
One of the curiosities about this campaign is that in spite of itself an exhausted, long serving, uneasy government offers more prospect of a fundamental break with the past than the fresh faced Conservatives. In the unlikely event that Labour was to win outright, Britain would be part of a new era across much of the western world in which government played a less defensive role in the markets and in the provision of public services. Almost certainly at Westminster there would be a new voting system and fixed-term Parliaments.
Today, the Conservatives will unveil some genuinely ambitious reforms but they are based on the more familiar wariness of government activity shared by Margaret Thatcher, John Major and to some extent Tony Blair. In truth all the parties are still working out how the relationship between state and individual will evolve in changed times. But the Conservatives' starting point is closer to the pre-recession set of assumptions in which government was seen as a stifling threat and rarely as part of the solution.
The voters have a choice, but which party represents change is more complicated than it seems.Reuse content