Manifestly Not in the Manifesto – so what?

Today the hot issue in the UK House of Commons today (5 February 2013) is the debate over the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

A lot of very heated debate including many accusations that “this was not in the manifesto.  Should the lack of even a mention in any manifesto necessarily bar our representatives voting on an issue?

Our MPs are meant to be representatives, not delegates, so surely they are empowered to introduce and debate any issue and to vote laws on any issue?

We are too “hung up” on manifestos and election promises (perceived or actual).  A week is a long time in politics, so events (dear boy) will mean that any manifesto will not survive first contact with reality. (to quote or paraphrase; Harold Wilson, Harold Macmillan, and Helmuth Von Moltke).  That is why parliaments need to be composed of representatives with a mandate to decide matters on our behalf rather than of delegates bound by a mandate from their voters.

So what should be the status of manifestos?  If they are not binding what are they?  If they were binding we would often get a form of legislative deadlock.  It may be obvious that something needs to be done but politicians bound by their manifestos are unable to do anything – so presumably have to resign and seek a new mandate via another general election.   Manifestos cannot be more than a set of aspirations with an invitation that the politicians be judged against those aspirations at the next election.  We as the electorate have to be charitable in judging taking into account how the general situation has evolved since the previous election.

Given that they should be statements of aspirations with possibly an indication of the values of the party concerned, parties will have to be more careful what they actually say and we the electorate have to show the discipline necessary to not encourage the manifesto writers to “compete on pledges”.

And when opposition parties howl at governing parties that they are “breaking promises”, they need to remember that because they lost the election they are probably keeping very few of the promises that they made.

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