If Manifestos were Consultation Papers? Would they meet the standard for ‘intelligent consideration’?

Posted on 18th June, 2024

This is Blog no 71


Most commentators now allege that neither of the major parties are telling the electorate the truth about the difficulties that lie in wait for a new administration on July 5th. The Tories seem in denial of the expenditure cuts they have already planned. And Labour won’t admit that the commitments they have made prevents them from delivering the public service improvements their supporters want. The traditional ‘tax and spend’ debate forces both sides to make long-term forward commitments on fiscal policy that no sane Company CEO would ever contemplate.

Now just imagine that this was not an election – but a consultation.


We need not concern ourselves with Gunning Principles one, three and four; or even the new, Institute-inspired Gunning Five (consulting the right people.) Instead, let’s focus on Gunning Two – which requires consultors to provide sufficient information as would enable consultees to give the proposals ‘intelligent consideration’.


Years of case law have established that it means telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It extends to being clear about the likely impacts of proposals, revealing the relevant arithmetic, showing awareness of relevant research or insights, acknowledging what other options may have been considered and even declaring what criteria were used to assess and select them. The required standard for disclosure is high. The underlying principle is that if information is withheld or misrepresented in a way which significantly affects the way in which a stakeholder responds, then, if challenged in the Courts, the consultation might be declared unlawful.


I spent last week reading Manifestos from all the main parties. Of course, the world of politics is different, and one must allow a measure of hyperbole and self-promotion. These are platforms not just for explaining what parties aim to deliver, but also to criticise their opponents. There is also the sheer breadth of what’s covered. The scope of this particular consultation is as wide as it gets. It covers everything, and one of the most fascinating aspects is to note the different emphasis that the parties place on various subjects. But on some key issues, high on voters’ list of priorities, it is worth subjecting the party promises to the Gunning standard:

  • Everyone agrees that NHS Waiting lists are unacceptable and that it’s too difficult to get GP appointments. But despite impressive-sounding statistics such as “…an extra 40,000 appointments” (Labour), “…build or modernise 250 GP surgeries” (Conservative) or “increase the number of GPs by 8,000.” (Liberal Democrats), there is little explanation of the extent to which these investments and the other extensive rafts of associated improvements actually makes a difference. If these were part of a consultation, stakeholders would demand better explanations and the opportunity to quiz the authors in far more detail than anyone even attempts during an election campaign.
  • Where Parties adopt contrasting policies, it is not easy to understand the impact of the trade-offs they make. A great example is over of the phasing-out date for the sale of diesel and petrol Originally 2030, but postponed till 2035 by Rishi Sunak’s Government, Labour proposes bringing it forward again to 2030. None of the implications are mentioned; both parties just regard their own view as the best. It is one of those commitments where one can be certain that no Government would subject the industry to yet another volte-face without further consultation. In other words, without understanding how key stakeholders such as the motor trade react to a proposal, consultees in a consultation would find it impossible to give it ‘intelligent consideration’
  • Many manifesto commitments are so vague as to be meaningless. Consider how expensive but awkward ‘wicked issues’ are handled. The Liberal Democrats offer to “ensure that women born in the 1950’s are finally treated fairly and properly compensated.” The Conservative formula is “We are carefully considering the Ombudsman report into WASPI women and will work with Parliament to provide an appropriate and swift response. Labour says nothing. Again, on the subject of vagueness, all that the Labour manifesto says about our world-class Universities sector is:

       “The current higher education funding settlement does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or

         students. Labour will act to create a secure future for higher education and the opportunities it creates

         across the UK. We will work with universities to deliver for students and our economy.”


Such a languid, superficial piece of wishful thinking would not last ten minutes if subject to the scrutiny given to a piece of consultation – whether by the Courts, the media … or politicians! And that, of course, is the problem.

It is obviously easy to expose Manifesto text to this artificial comparison, but it helps highlight the need for better informed dialogue about real issues and choices. If there is disenchantment with our political processes, is it maybe because the debate seldom delves beyond the headline? What election strategists call the ‘retail offering’ too easily becomes a shopping list of oft-repeated soundbites whose true meaning remain obscure. Even the best interviewers struggle to get politicians to depart from the rehearsed script.


That is the essential difference between voting on the basis of a portmanteau of intentions and forming an intelligent view of policy proposals. At an election, you choose a super decision-maker; in a consultation, you react to an issue. But both are really about trust. And the malaise in democratic politics is that the public no longer believe that those they elect can deliver what they promise. Similarly, scepticism about consultation stems from a suspicion that those who consult can’t be trusted to take proper account of consultee views.


The Labour Party points to years of sleaze and scandals and promises measures to recover the integrity of Parliament and Government. But what is most required is a new respect for truth and accuracy. We are slowly moving towards it with the advent of ‘fact-checking’, though this is still in its infancy. There is already pressure for a new ‘duty of candour’ following the historic failures of the State to admit its mistakes. Think of Hillsborough, Windrush, Grenfell, Infected Blood and now the Post Office! All demonstrate inadequate sanctions against those who mislead or dissemble. For as long as lies and misinformation go unpunished, there may be little improvement in the reputation of our institutions.


The good news is that public engagement and consultation – in its many forms and including innovative mechanisms like Citizens’ Assemblies provide opportunities to counteract the drift towards deception in the formal literature of Elections.


The Manifestos – full of fine words and the truth as each party sees it, may not consciously be deliberate attempts to mislead; maybe they are just ‘intentions’ and ‘aspirations’ portrayed as unbreakable promises, immune to the impact of unforeseeable events and crises.


If we had a more mature debate, one would recognise that in an uncertain world, there are fewer absolutes and that key decisions need to balance what pre-election undertakings may have been given against the latest evidence and the informed ‘intelligent consideration’ of stakeholders.


We are all stakeholders in the coming election. We need to be consulted better.


Rhion H Jones LL.B


See Rhion's Speeches etc - click here

For More like this - free of charge:   now click here


Leave a Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you would like to, please leave a comment below.

I guess the Party that wins the election will be expected to deliver their manifesto. In some cases they will consult on the detailed delivery of their pledges once in government. This is where it gets interesting, particularly if responses to the consultation indicate that the pledge cannot be delivered in practice, or at least not without radically changing it, resulting in accusations of a breach of trust should the Government abandon their pledge, or a sham consultation should they plough on regardless.