Party Manifestoes Research Paper

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Manifestoes or platforms are the programs usually issued by parties in campaigning for elections. They give an analysis of current problems and future developments endorsed—uniquely—by the party as a whole through its formal procedures. As such they are crucial to the operation of the democratic mandate: the idea that parties are chosen by electors for government on the basis of the competing policies they present. Only in the manifestoes can such competing policies be found, since the manifesto is generally the only policy statement endorsed officially by the party as a whole—in the election or indeed at any other time. The unique standing of the manifesto as a statement of official party policy renders it useful practically, as a guide to the media and (indirectly) electors, about what the party stands for; and also, crucial analytically, as the best indicator of what the party’s collective preferences are. It is, however, a coded statement designed to win over votes. Hence its interpretation has to be based on assumptions about how parties compete for votes, which are described below.

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1. The Nature of the Manifesto

In the UK, USA, and some continental European countries, manifestoes are published by the party as booklets at the official start of the election campaign. There have been clear physical changes in both appearance and length during the postwar period. They have become markedly longer and noticeably glossier. Starting out as badly printed, unillustrated pamphlets immediately after World War II, they have in some later cases approached the size of books. A more recent tendency is to have a plethora of glossy photographs, colored charts, and figures to reinforce and break up the text, which itself is headed by and interspersed with soundbites.

Elsewhere, practices in regard to the publication of election programs differ. In France, programs have sometimes been published commercially as books, which have attained the best-seller list! In Scandinavia and Canada they have at times appeared as separate pamphlets addressed to women, youth, workers, and other demographic groups. In Japan, they are widely diffused as summaries of interviews with the party secretaries, published in the leading mass circulation newspapers. In Australia and New Zealand they do not even get into print, but are substituted by an hourlong television address from the party leader—the content of which is organised along conventional lines, and so covers much the same range of topics broken into the same kinds of sections as in the USA and UK.

These variations may reflect a growing realization that most electors do not read party programs even if they are pushed through their door. Instead they get an impression of them from media discussion. Media presenters, on the other hand, read programs very carefully, using them to start debates and confront party spokespeople if they try to pull back from concerns expressed in the document. In this sense the manifesto constitutes a policy equilibrium point for the party set at the outset of the campaign (Budge 1994).

Reading the document casually, however, one might be hard pressed to discover much policy content at all. Until recently specific promises have been limited and confined mostly to pledges on peripheral problems where the party knew it could deliver with some certainty if it became (part of ) of the government (Rose 1980). Most of the text discusses general trends and developments under such headings as Youth, Unemployment, the Economy, and so forth. Depending on whether the party is in government or opposition it describes the situation in optimistic or pessimistic terms, sometimes going into the historical achievements of the party or stressing the importance of the area.

Rarely, however, is the text more specific than this. The manifestoes of competing parties do nonetheless succeed in presenting quite contrasting diagnoses of the current situation—one painting a glowing picture of free enterprise surging ahead amid general prosperity, another pointing to growing social inequalities and the pressing need for government intervention. Without further information one could not even be sure if they appeared at the same election or at different ones.

2. Electoral Competition and the Manifesto

The reason for structuring election programs in this way is to be found in the view party strategists take of competition for votes. In line with Riker’s (1993, p. 105) ‘dominance principle,’ electors are seen as overwhelmingly endorsing one ‘obvious’ line of policy in each area: cutting taxes, strengthening law enforcement, extending social provision, and so forth. Particular parties, because of their record and ideology, are associated with each favored line of policy. If you want to cut taxes you will not vote Socialist but you will if you want to extend welfare.

For the parties, competition thus consists in getting ‘their’ issues—the ones on which they are associated with the popular line of action—on to the agenda. To do this they need to emphasize the importance of such issues compared with those which favor rivals. Their manifesto progresses this process by talking a lot about their party issues, ignoring areas ‘belonging’ to rival parties. As the task is to convince media and electors of these issues’ importance, the manifestoes can ignore fine details of policy in favor of general discussion—a tactic which, conveniently, does not tie parties down to specific actions when in government.

The view of party competition which emerges from analyses of manifestoes (Robertson 1976) is thus one in which relative emphases on different issues substitute for direct confrontation over differing policies on the same issue. This is not to say, however, that parties are not putting forward different programs of government. Parties which talk a lot about taxes mean to cut them and parties discussing welfare mean to extend it. Manifestoes are about priorities between tax, welfare, and other areas, even if the other side to the debate— cutting services or increasing taxes—goes unstated.

3. Using Manifestoes in Political Research

The way manifestoes are written makes them relatively easy to analyze quantitatively. By counting sentences or words into different policy areas and percentaging them out of the total to standardize for length, one can contrast left-leaning and right-leaning parties and even characterize their attitudes within different policy areas (Klingemann et al. 1994). Word counts of electronic texts can be performed easily by computer programs, opening up new possibilities of research once the techniques are better validated. Sentence counts have been carried out manually for all significant parties in 51 countries over the postwar period, from the time of the first democratic election (Budge et al. 1987).

Given the manifestoes’ standing as the sole authorized statement of party collective policy preferences, such analyses can give an exact picture of parties’ ideological progression and shifting policy stances over the postwar period. This is illustrated in Fig. 1, which traces the US Democrats’ and Republicans’ left–right movement over the postwar period. (Left–right is measured by adding all per- centage mentions of ‘rightist’ issues and substracting from this the total percentage mention of ‘left-wing’ issues, Klingemann et al. 1994, p. 40.)

Party Manifestoes Research Paper

Figure 1 shows first of all that Democrats and Republicans take up the standard left and right positions assumed by Socialist and Conservative parties in other countries. The validity of interpreting US party competition in left–right terms is supported:

(a) by the way in which contrasts between the parties mirror the historical record—for example, far apart at the ‘Goldwater’ election of 1964, closer in 1992 with Clinton’s famous move to the right;

(b) by the high correlation between presidential platform positions and the relative ‘liberalism’ of subsequent presidential policy (McDonald et al. 1999). (This finding incidentally illustrates the use- fulness of comparing manifesto commitments with actual policy as a method of checking out mandate theory, (Klingemann et al. 1994);

Figure 1 also serves as a check on Downsian theories of party competition which predict policy convergence between parties as both seek to position themselves near the median elector (Downs 1957). Clearly this expectation is not fulfilled as the US parties always maintain their ideological distance from each other, even where they converge to some extent, as in 1992. Their patterns of movement are explained better by the ‘saliency’ theory, where parties are stuck with their traditional issue positions and can act strategically only by varying the emphasis they put on them (Budge et al. 1987).

Such changes can be monitored for the separate issue areas by seeing what percentage of sentences are devoted to them in the manifesto at different elections. Figure 2 traces British parties’ concerns with traditional morality and law and order (‘social conservatism’) over the postwar period. The Conservative Party generally appropriates this area where it presents itself as the defender of ‘family values.’ However, Labour emphasized it a great deal in the 1997 General Election when it was a major component in the party’s rightward shift (Evans and Norris 1999).

Party Manifestoes Research Paper

4. Linking Manifestoes to Election Change

As well as supplementing historical analyses of party change, such ‘maps’ of party movement can also be related to voting behavior. Instead of estimating party positions indirectly by asking electors about them, we can actually study the effect of a party’s strategic adjustments on electors’ perceptions and subsequent voting decisions. This extends the possibilities of linking such phenomena as ‘revisionism’ to electoral reactions, to see if it actually has the effects claimed for it (Evans and Norris 1999, pp. 87–101). Methodologically one can marry textual analysis to survey research to deepen the insight provided by both.

5. Linking Manifestoes to Go ernment Action

Manifestoes mediate between electors’ preferences— expressed by voting for the closest party—and government actions as mirrored in expenditure or legislation. As well as investigating what impact they have on electors, the priorities in the manifesto can be related to government policy outputs. Research has shown them to be quite closely linked (McDonald et al. 1999), thus upholding ‘mandate’ ideas that the party or parties in government have been popularly authorized to carry through their program and indeed have a responsibility to carry it through.

This moral commitment is reinforced by two other characteristics of manifestoes, which give them an impact in government.

(a) Manifestoes reaffirm party ideology, applying it to specific policy areas. Thus most party representatives, who belong to a party in the first place because they subscribe to its principles, actually want to carry out manifesto commitments regardless of electoral considerations.

(b) The manifesto is often the only worked out program the party has for government. Even where coalition partners make a policy agreement about what to do, the separate party manifestoes feed into it. For practical reasons of coordination and planning in government therefore, the manifesto is an indispensable document.

6. Overall Role and Significance of Manifestoes

Cynicism about the extent to which parties keep their promises, and hence about the significance of the manifesto which contains them, is easy. The election program has often been seen as a ‘mere piece of paper’ forgotten immediately after the party gets into government. The research cited above, however, shows that the manifesto deserves to be taken more seriously, both by voters and political analysts. Parties are responsible, both in maintaining consistency with previous policy and in carrying it out in government. This would hardly be so if they just shifted policies around in response to electoral expediency. What Figs. 1 and 2 show is considerable stability in the positions taken by the only policy document which parties issue collectively. This renders it an invaluable source for studying party intentions and preferences, and a good guide to what they will do in government.


  1. Budge I 1994 A new spatial theory of party competition. British Journal of Political Science 24: 443–67
  2. Budge I, Robertson D, Hearl D (eds.) 1987 Ideology, Strategy and Party Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  3. Downs A 1957 An Economic Theory of Democracy. Harper, New York
  4. Evans G, Norris P 1999 Critical Elections. Sage, London
  5. Klingemann H-D, Hofferbert R I, Budge I et al. 1994 Parties, Policies and Democracy. Westview, Boulder, CO
  6. McDonald M D, Budge I, Hofferbert R I 1999 Party mandate theory and time series analysis. Electoral Studies 18: 587–96
  7. Riker W H 1993 Agenda Formation. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI
  8. Robertson D 1976 A Theory of Party Competition. Wiley, London
  9. Rose R 1980 The Problem of Party Go ernment. Macmillan, London
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