Which manifesto gets our vote?
Party manifestos can teach us a lot about how to connect with our target audience. And how not to.
At Quietroom, most of the organisations we work with have tricky stories to tell. They work in sectors like health, money and energy, where there’s a big gap between what the experts know, and what the audience knows.
What’s more, our clients tend to be talking about subjects that are vital to people’s lives, but hard to get excited about. It’s one thing to sell a product they want, such as the latest phone. It’s quite another to ask them to think about intangible services, like insurance policies, or make decisions about issues that won’t affect them for decades – such as whether they’ll have enough money when they stop working or whether switching to a green energy supplier could help slow climate change.
And if all that wasn’t tricky enough, many of our clients – particularly in areas like money – are trying to connect with audiences who listen with open ears but folded arms. They remember the financial crash. They remember the time their insurance tried to wiggle out of paying their claim. They’ve been hurt before and they don’t trust a word.
So given all this – the gap between experts and audiences, the lack of glamour, the absence of a tangible product and the scepticism – it’s a wonder we’ve never been asked to help write an election manifesto. After all, political parties face the same challenges as the organisations we help every day. Politicians are neck-deep in policy details. They need to connect with an audience that knows and cares less than they do. They know people don’t trust them. And they’re trying to sell something that can feel intangible – the promise of a country that could take years to come true.
That’s why we’ve taken a look at this year’s manifestos. We looked at six major parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, UKIP and Plaid Cymru. (Sorry SNP, it’s nothing personal – you just published late.) We put aside whether we agreed with their analysis or their policies and focused on how well they communicate what they want to do. Then, based on writing alone, we gave each manifesto a score out of ten. When we had all the scores, we used them to apportion seats in our fictional House of Commons. We also asked: what can we learn about writing documents that communicate a vision in a way that feels credible, that connects with people, and that might even convince them to come over to your side.
A quick disclaimer: this was not science. This was six people reading a few sections of a manifesto each, then talking them through over lunch.
Let’s start with the Greens.
The Green Party – 5/10
When you think about it, ‘manifesto’ is an odd word. It comes from the Latin, ‘to make public’, which is a little writer-centric. It lets the writer set out their stall but it doesn’t tell the reader what it’s for or what it gives them.
That’s why we loved the Greens’ decision to ditch the word ‘manifesto’ and call their document something else – a ‘guarantee’. Unlike ‘manifesto’, a ‘guarantee’ is a promise to the reader. It puts them first, moving past beliefs to measurable actions. It says: if you elect us, this is what we will do.
Sadly, what’s inside The Green Guarantee doesn’t always work as well.
It’s a big challenge to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know what you know. We should never assume that the reader already agrees with our analysis or even knows much about it. That’s why this mission statement doesn’t help:
‘Stand Up For What Matters’ assumes that I already know what matters, and that it’s the same thing that matters to you. That’s fine when you’re talking to people who are already on your side, but it leaves everyone else to do some digging.
The Green Guarantee leaves the reader to do a lot of digging. It talks about the Greens having the ‘ideas to create a confident and caring Britain’. It invites us to ‘imagine a government that trusts in our common humanity and our capacity to govern ourselves’. But it never argues that Britain today is unconfident or uncaring, or that the current government distrusts our common humanity or our capacity to govern ourselves. By assuming this common ground, it passes up the opportunity to make the case and win new support.
Plaid Cymru – 7/10
When it comes to describing the status quo then challenging it, Plaid Cymru’s manifesto sets the gold standard.
Elections campaigns are built on clear stories – A/B choices between competing world views. If you’re Labour, for example, the choice in 2017 is between a Britain that ‘works for the many’ and a Britain that ‘works for the few’. If you’re the Tories, the choice is between ‘strong and stable leadership’ and a ‘coalition of chaos’.
For Plaid Cymru, the A/B choice is clear: Wales can be defended or it can be forgotten. Politics aside, they argue it brilliantly:
Plaid’s argument is this: For lots of people in Wales, the Tories are enemy #1. They’re going to win Westminster. They mustn’t win Wales. Now it’s a question of who is the best placed to stop them. For decades, that was Labour. But now Labour are too ‘weak and divided’ to oppose the Tories. They’ve become enemy #2. Only Plaid Cymru stands ready to defend Wales.
Plaid Cymru strengthen this story through the metaphors they use.
Fundamentally, a metaphor is when you borrow the qualities of one thing to describe something else. We’ve all heard metaphors in fiction. We know that, when Romeo says that Juliet ‘is the sun’, he doesn’t mean she’s a flaming ball of gas – he means that she’s radiantly beautiful, that she gives him life, and that she is the centre of his personal universe.
Politicians use metaphors to imbue themselves with positive qualities and their opponents with negative qualities. That’s why politicians accuse each other of ‘targeting’ one group or another for things like ‘cuts’, creating a sense that the other team aren’t just wrong in their analysis, they’re vindictive and violent. It’s why, in last week’s TV debate, Amber Rudd chose metaphors of child’s play when she confronted Jeremy Corbyn on Labour’s spending plans. By accusing him of wanting a ‘magic money tree’ or spending ‘Monopoly money’, she’s trying to plant the idea that Corbyn doesn’t just have a different economic outlook to her, but that a Labour government would be made up of children who still believe in imaginary things and think money is a game.
To bolster their message about the Tories, Plaid Cymru use the metaphors of attack and defence:
Look at the language there. A ‘tidal wave’ of attacks. A ‘crumbling wall’. It’s a mixed metaphor, for sure, but the effect works. The Saxon oppressor is coming across the border, and the one group that have historically defended Wales are ruined. It’s time for a different defender.
So well done, Plaid Cymru. Well done, apart from this:
‘Competitivity’ is not a word. Not outside politics, anyway. Words like this are jargon – the language of a tribe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with jargon – between members of a tribe, jargon saves time. But if you’re not already part of the tribe, it stops you from feeling like you could join in. The more jargon a manifesto uses, the more it feels like an exercise for politicians and the less it feels like something that’s to do with real people’s lives.
Which brings us to…
Conservatives – 2/10
The Tories ring the jargon bell loud and clear with their ‘Great Meritocracy’ (capital ‘G’, capital ‘M’). It’s a phrase they bring up again and again. And each time it lands with the same wet thud as Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, another phrase that few people outside Tory HQ embraced.
This manifesto is full of jargon. As well as being the language of tribes, another problem with jargon is that it allows people to leave out the crucial steps of an argument – the steps that the tribe already agree with and so take for granted. When, for example, the Tories pledge ‘new funding arrangements so we can open a specialist maths school in every major city in England’, there’s no reason why anyone should know why maths schools are particularly important. That’s why it’s a good idea to assume that your reader can understand what you’re telling them, but never assume they know what you know.
Another area of the Conservative manifesto that stood out to us is how they talk about themselves and other parties. The other parties fill their manifestos with attacks on each other, the Tories do not mention another party or leader. Not once. It’s a clever technique. By portraying themselves as being above the fray, they’re reinforcing the idea that only they can give Britain ‘strong and stable’ leadership.
But while the Tories don’t want to talk about other parties, they want to talk a lot about Theresa May. She’s all over the manifesto, a greater focus than the party she leads or even the country she serves. Here’s the very first sentence of the manifesto:
The measure of history is what Theresa May has experienced. In the foreword she talks about creating ‘the kind of country I want Britain to be’, not the kind of country that Britain ‘should’ be or that people say they want. Theresa knows best.
Labour – 4/10
Labour have their own problems balancing how to talk about themselves and others. Reading the Labour manifesto, it felt a bit ‘up itself’, a bit in thrall to its own mythology. I wasn’t sure why, until I read this report in the Guardian, which went through each manifesto and picked out the words each manifesto uses most.
© The Guardian
The word Labour uses most often is ‘Labour’.
Elsewhere, Labour’s manifesto is a mixed bag. If Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives have a bit of wobble with jargon like ‘competitivity’ and the ‘Great Meritocracy’, then Labour risk toppling over.
Whoever you’re talking to, it’s important to use language that resonates with them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling a phone or a vision of the country. As voters and consumers, we want to know that the people who are selling to us live in our world, rather than observe it through a telescope. In politics, this means you have to talk about people’s lives before you can talk to them about policies.
Here’s Labour on childcare:
This is just one example of putting policy before people. No parent ever said ‘You know what makes me angry? Having to access informal childcare support’.
It’s an easy fix. Just start with the people. Like this: ‘Right now, lots of parents have to ask other people, such as their own parents or their friends, to look after their kids so they can get back to work. That’s not fair. It means if you don’t have parents or friends who can help, you’re at a disadvantage. And it means that thousands of people are basically working for free. That’s not fair either. And here’s how we’ll stop it…’
More positively, we love Labour’s decision to call their flagship education policy ‘the National Education Service’.
This name uses a great technique: introducing a new idea by comparing it to something that’s familiar. The National Health Service is part of what makes us British. The phrases ‘free at the point of use’ and ‘from cradle to grave’ could be written on our bones, they’re so instantly familiar.
They use the same language to tee up the National Education Service. This achieves two things: it draws a direct line from the party of 2017 all the way back to the party of 1948, allowing them to portray themselves as the custodians of an institution. It also gives education the same status today as health had then. All by borrowing a bit of language.
Lib Dems – 5/10
The Lib Dems have two manifestos: a 100-page version and a 13-page, ‘easy read’ version.* Here’s an excellent bit of the ‘easy read’ version:
In a world where manifestos frequently mix facts with values and policies with visions, this is refreshingly clear. It starts with a statement of belief – ‘We believe that Britain should stay in the EU.’ It recaps what happened – ‘In 2016 Britain voted to leave.’ Then it tells you what they think should happen: ‘We think people in Britain should say yes to the plan and leave, or say no and stay’.
I defy anyone to read this and not get it first time. That’s good writing. It respects the audience’s time and it doesn’t wiggle out of having an opinion. And because of that, it helps you decide.
Elsewhere, the Lib Dems’ manifesto won lots of points with us for being easy to read. Let’s look at the contents page:
Contents pages are really important. They tell the reader what’s coming up and could make the difference between someone giving up or reading on. The Lib Dems’ contents page works great. It’s disciplined and gives a good sense of what’s to follow.
Sure, there are some vague claims here. ‘Put children first’ and ‘support families and communities’ are bland enough that any party could say them. But by using lots of verbs – ‘Protect Britain’s Place in Europe’, ‘Build an Economy that Works for You’ – they’re creating energy and suggesting action. It’s a lesson UKIP would do well to learn. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
What lets the Lib Dems down is the lack of a clear story. Unlike Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems can’t quite articulate what they’re for. Tim Farron’s introduction says that ‘Theresa May’s Conservative Party is on course to win this election’, setting up his party as a better opposition than Labour. But the manifesto itself can’t decide whether it should offer a plan for opposition or a plan for government. In the section on education, for example, they pledge ‘nearly £7 billion for school and college budgets’ – which is something only a government can do – then pledge to oppose new selective schools, which is something they’d do in opposition. It’s a tension that’s felt on every page.
UKIP – 3/10
Not much to love here. We found UKIP’s manifesto to be overwritten and undisciplined, starting with the contents page. Unlike the Lib Dems’, it fails to give a good sense of what’s to follow:
It lists 25 sections, including some that are so abstract it’s hard to know what they cover – is ‘A Brighter Future for Our Next Generation’ about energy policy? What about ‘Britain’s New Role in the World’? Why should we ‘Create Coastal Enterprise Zones’? Part of the problem here is that the headings are inconsistent. Some start with a verb: defending, creating, backing. Others start with an adjective: sound, fair, real. And others simply with the subject matter – trade, policing, transport. One is just a slogan (inspired by The Three Musketeers?) – ‘Britain United Under One Law for All’.
Another big problem with UKIP’s manifesto is the tension between the writing style of the authors and the reading age of the audience. According to research, UKIP supporters are disproportionately less likely to have gone to university than supporters of other parties. But when we ran UKIP’s manifesto through a readability checker, it told us you’d need to be educated to at least degree-level to read it comfortably. The average sentence has 22 words – more the style of an establishment broadsheet than a radical pamphlet.
That said, there were a few bright spots.
For months, the debate about Brexit has been whether the government will go after a ‘soft’ Brexit or a ‘hard’ Brexit. For UKIP, the favoured flavour of Brexit is not hard or soft, but ‘real’. This is a neat way of encapsulating their idea of ‘the kind of Brexit people had in mind when they voted’. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ are balanced alternatives. ‘Real’ and ‘not real’ are not. ‘Real’ is the only legitimate option.
We’re also glad they’ve found a few places to mention the party’s alliterative ‘Believe in Britain’ slogan, the much-repeated title of Farage’s 2015 manifesto. It’s too good a phrase to give up on, and much more uplifting than the title of this year’s ‘Britain Together’, which has far right overtones.
So… who would we elect?
Let’s look at the leaderboard:
Plaid Cymru – 7/10
Lib Dems – 5/10
Green – 5/10
Labour – 4/10
UKIP – 3/10
Conservative – 2/10
This means that in our writers’ House of Commons, the new government would be a Lib Dem/Green-led coalition, with Plaid Cymru taking most of the seats in Wales. Interesting.
What can we learn from manifestos?
Manifestos are difficult documents to get right. They need to move between big ideas and granular policies. They need to motivate people to care at a time when many distrust politicians and are tired of being told that every vote is The Choice Of A Generation, even though we seem to have one every other week.
Remember Brenda from Bristol?
Politics is a conversation about people’s lives. When people don’t take part in that conversation their voice can’t be heard. So the first responsibility of a manifesto must be to get people to read it.
With that in mind, here are some things we’ve learned. You don’t have to be a politician to use them. As long as you’re talking about important things to people who know and care less than you do, they’ll help you get started.
1. Remember who it’s for
Write for people, not policy wonks. Tape a photo of Brenda to your computer monitor to remind you of that.
2. Make it easy to read
Very few readers make it to the end of a manifesto. Other than the party’s true believers (who don’t need convincing), it might just be us at Quietroom, journalists and think tanks. So give the non-nerds a hand. Cut the waffle, write a clear contents page and use headings that help people skim.
3. Give people a framework for understanding their options
Instead of piling into the details, step back and answer these big questions first: Why should someone read this? What’s going to be in it?
4. Tell a clear story
What’s the choice the reader faces? What do we think is going on in the world right now? What are we going to do about it? Why is that a good thing?
5. Put people before ideas
Start with real people, not abstract ideas. Move between big ideas and concrete specifics so what you’re saying feels both ambitious and credible. And watch out for statements that sound worthy, but that anyone could make – for politicians that’s stuff like ‘Putting children first’ or ‘Believe in Britain’. For businesses, it’s ‘bespoke solutions’ and ‘a passion for customer service’. If you find yourself saying something that anyone could say, you probably need to be more specific.
What do you think?
Let us know if you’ve seen or heard a bit of political punditry that struck you as well-written. Or something that’s gone awry.
*Thanks to Chris Bowman for this link to easy read versions of all the other manifestos, except UKIP’s.
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