A world first
It has finally happened. For just about the first time anyone I have spoken to can remember Further Education Collegesgot a mention in a political party’s general election manifesto. Alongside the expected announcements on Techbaccs, Careers advice and Technical degrees and apprenticeships Colleges got a look in in the Labour Party’s manifesto. There they are in black and white on page 38. But do the manifestos really matter? Are they worth the hours of laborious crafting that go into them?
The temptation is to say no they are not. After all look what happened after the 2010 general election and the formation of the coalition government? The Lib Dems junked one of their key manifesto commitments to abolish tuition fees for university students and have reaped the whirlwind ever since. (In my viewsomewhat unfairly given the range of promises in both the coalition parties then manifestos which were cast aside during the process of forming the coalition.) However I think to feel that the manifestos have little merit is perhaps understandable but misses the point. They represent a promissory note to the British people or ‘an invitation to treat’ to use a legal term. We should take them seriously. It is a matter of record that FE Colleges have been mentioned in one of them. We would argue we should be explicitly recognised in all of them.
Manifestos also shine a light on the political philosophy of a party like no other documents do. Phrases have been carefully honed not just to attract voters but also to define the mission and ideology. Take Labour’s opening statement ‘Britain only succeeds when working people succeed’. This harks back to the language of collectivism; of the ‘we’ not the ‘I’. It is an explicit attempt to define the party as a ‘we’ party not a ‘you’ party. On the other hand the Conservative manifesto talks thus: ‘It is a plan for a better future – for you, for your family. It is a plan for every stage of your life. For your new-born baby, there will be the world’s best medical care. For your child, there will be a place at an excellent school. As you look for your first job, we are building a healthy economy that provides a good career for you with a decent income. As you look for that first home, we will make sure the Government is there to help. As you raise your family, we will help you with childcare. And as you grow older, we will ensure that you have dignity in retirement.’ The Conservatives are appealing to the ‘you’ – the individual citizen. It is about your specific needs, wants, desires that they wish to fulfil.
And just for balance we have the Lib Dems’ leader Nick Clegg (their manifesto was yet to be published at time of writing) ‘It’s a very old, liberal idea, the idea that everybody should be able to live out their life to the full regardless of the circumstances of their birth, regardless of the income of their parents, regardless of where they come from.” Here the Lib Dem philosophy of Liberalism is being explicitly stated. There is mention of both individual and the use of the collective ‘everybody’. I will stop this exercise at this point since the blog would not make it past the editor’s pen if I started looking at all the other parties’ manifestos in the same way.
It would be foolish to pretend that what I have described above is in anyway scientific but I believe that it is genuinely worth the effort to read the party manifestos. In their entirety they help all of us understand better the foundation ideas from which each party builds their promises and commitments. For those of us working in education, attempting to deliver public value, surrounded by bureaucratically set targets, audit processes and reduced resources, what the parties say about how they will balance the books and continue to invest in public goods is vitally important. Whatever Government is formed after the election the environment will be tough. But whoever is in power the manifestos give us the lexicon to understand where they will be coming from.