Election '97: Checklist of promises that will pin down Mr Blair to

Alan Watkins on politics
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What are election manifestos for? Anyone leafing through last week's productions could be forgiven for thinking they were intended to shift votes. Both parties seemed determined to present themselves as building societies: moreover, as societies which are about to transform themselves into banks, so providing their borrowers or savers with useful sums, as welcome as they are undeserved.

Like our mutual societies, now busily turning themselves into limited companies, our equally traditional political parties remain (they give us to understand) as solid as Victorian town halls. Coloured pictures of little children happily at work or at play proliferate. At the same time they are thoroughly, even relentlessly up-to-date. There are frequent references to computers, technology and the modern world.

Both parties assert that Britain is a fine place to live in. Both are strong on self-reliance, the Conservatives more so: "We also want to encourage people to save so they have the security and self-respect that comes [sic] from being able to rely on their own resources rather than immediately turning to the state."

Yes indeed. But the private provision for retirement or illness that both parties now support is contingent on earnings which are secure, regular and high or, at any rate, high enough to enable fixed sums to be deducted periodically from them. It is this kind of economy which the Conservatives have been busily destroying over the past 18 years. Indeed, their manifesto in effect boasts of this transformation. We live, it says proudly -- or it amounts to this -- in a low-wage economy with other low costs on employers and a lot of people on short-term contracts with little or no security.

If this is so, as it is -- and likely to remain so whoever wins -- the logical solution is to rethink the whole concept of employment and to make more people self-employed. Of recent politicians, only Lord Lawson would have been intelligent enough to think of this and bold enough to try to put it into practice. It would, however, have been opposed by the Treasury, which values the regular supply of cash obtained from PAYE.

There is certainly no danger that any change of this kind will be urged by Mr Gordon Brown. It is what Mr Brown and his colleagues will do that is of interest at this stage. Matters may alter if the opinion polls shift, but it looks as if Labour will form the next government. As we are on the subject of polls, by the way, two weeks ago this paper's expert, Mr Philip Cowley, wrote that they had the result wrong in 1970 and 1992. Strictly,this is true: but in February 1974 also the polls gave the Conservatives an average lead of 2 per cent and most people assumed they would be returned to office. As things turned out their lead was 1 per cent but Harold Wilson unexpectedly came back to No10 because Labour, though still in a minority, had more seats than the Conservatives.

Nothing of that kind is likely to happen this time. Accordingly the Labour manifesto is the best guide we have to what Mr Tony Blair's government will do or try to do after 1 May. R H S Crossman used to maintain that the real purpose of a Labour manifesto was to help ministers dominate their civil servants. "Look," the minister was supposed to be able to say to Sir Douglas Corridor, "we can't go back on this promise now. There it is, in the manifesto. We've given our word." This was not an activity about which Crossman was normally much concerned. He merely claimed to find the manifesto convenient for imposing his will.

Wilson agreed. Though the governments over which he presided were all held to have broken their word, he set great store by promises (in old Labour argot, "pledges") in the manifesto. He would tick off those that were kept from what he called a check-list, and go on to produce them to greater orlesser degrees of wonderment in his speech on the parliamentary report to the party conference.

Mr Blair, it has been implied, will not be able to make a similar speech because he has given no promises. A close comparison of the manifesto with its predecessor New Labour, New Life for Britain does not bear out this interpretation. Some commitments, indeed, have been expanded and rendered more precise.

Thus the old document said that Labour would "provide a referendum on voting reform". The manifesto repeats this but adds that "an independent commission on voting systems" would be "appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system." This presumably excludes the alternative vote (where the ballot paper is marked 1, 2, ...) which Ramsay MacDonald almost brought in before he was interrupted by the financial crisis of 1931.

With the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, Labour has already decided to support the additional member system. This is a form of proportional representation, in which the elected chamber is rendered more representative by being topped up. I hope the additional members are some of the candidates who came second - who actually stood in the election - rather than party hacks chosen by apparatchiks from a central list, which is an iniquitous system. In Scotland there will be two referendums, one on whether there should be a parliament at all and the other on whether it should possess "defined and limited financial powers to vary revenue". In Wales there will only be one, on whether Wales should have an assembly. All three referendums are to be decided by simple majority.

Nor does the manifesto back track on the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our law. The policy on the House of Lords remains unchanged likewise. As an "initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote" in the Lords would be ended by statute. This would be the "first stage in a process of reform" to make the Lords more "democratic and representative".

This suggests some process of election without going so far as actually promising it. Not so, alas. The object would be "to ensure that over time, party appointees as life peers" - who are clearly going to stay - more accurately reflected "the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election". However, the crossbench (or independent) peers would stay. No one party should seek a majority in the Lords.

It has been said too that Mr Blair has shifted slightly on the trade unions. This may be so, but not by very much. There was an ambiguity in the old document about whether the majority voting for union recognition meant a majority of workers or of those workers who were also union members. The manifesto says that where a majority of the "relevant workforce" vote in a ballot for the union to represent them, the union should be recognised. There would be "full consultation" on the "most effective means of implementing this proposal".

Whether the voters pay any attention to this kind of thing or not, it will certainly be worth reminding Mr Blair of it in the year ahead. For this is what election manifestos are really for: to hold prime ministers to account.