Wednesday 1 December 2010

Do Politicians Keep Promises?

Of course they don't, well, at least that's what common sense would have us believe. A belief not at all weakened by the Liberal Democrats' self-inflicted wounds over tuition fee rises and higher education cuts. But is it true? Are manifestos and pledges not worth the paper they're written on? Do politicians sell any old snake oil to get elected? Dusting off an old MRes presentation I gave about six years ago, scholarship in political science has attempted to answer this question and has come to conclusions some may find surprising.

The seminal work on this issue is the 1994 book
Parties, Policies, and Democracy by Hans-Dieter Klingemann, Richard Hofferbert and Ian Budge. What they set out to do is investigate the importance of party election programmes for policy formation. They selected ten countries - Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, and USA - and coded major party manifestoes taken from over a period of 40 years. This established these party's programmatic priorities. Simultaneously they looked at each country's public expenditure to determine what their actual policy priorities turned out to be. The two were then compared to determine whether variations in party agendas can forecast policy priority, if governments enact policies in accordance with their own programmes (or that of their opponents), and if a government follows an ideology-driven agenda at the expense of the pragmatic positions all parties assume from time to time.

The received academic literature on policy and promise took an extremely dim view of politicians, or at least the mechanics by which decisions are arrived at. C. Wright Mills in his
The Power Elite (1956) argued politics was orchestrated by behind-the-scenes elites. Party positions were so much puff because upon the assumption of government a party is compelled to follow the elite's agenda. March and Olson’s 1984 paper, 'The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life' suggests the programme-policy linkage is negated by the irrational behaviour of policy makers, who randomly select ‘solutions’ and then hunt for ‘problems’ to apply them to in order to remain popular. Lindblom's famous 1959 article, 'The Science of Muddling Through' argues policy making is an incremental process guided by pragmatic consideration above all else.

Rational choice theory also rules out a meaningful relationship between programme and policy. Olson in his 1982 book,
The Rise and Decline of Nations argued rational behaviour exercised by individuals will lead to arbitrary and irrational outcomes at the collective level, rendering democratic policy making practically impossible. For example if individual 1 prefers policy A to policy B, individual 2 prefers policy B to C, and individual 3 prefers policy C to A, a ‘voting cycle’ is created resulting in policy making never reflecting majority preferences. Rational policy makers therefore have to abandon the terrain of ideologically-informed political programmes and learn to be pragmatic.

In sum, critiques of programme-policy links say it is impossible because of elite interest, 'irrational' adaptations to the everyday political game, or the subordination of manifesto commitments to pragmatic calculation. These critiques are academic echoes of common sense assumptions.

Klingemann, Hofferbert and Budge think differently and offer their ‘theory of democratic policy making’. It begins with a citizenry who
a priori possess interests and concerns. Interest groups and the media articulate (some of) these before they are passed up to the level of ‘interest intermediation’. Here parties aggregate demands and select issues that are re-presented to the electorate as a bundle of issues, i.e. as the party's political programme. If the party successfully persuades enough people to vote for it it enters government and makes policy decisions that are implemented by the state bureaucracy. The citizens are the recipients of these policy outcomes; it helps reconfigure their interests, new issues and concerns are articulated, and the process is cycled through again.

Where does competition between parties fit into this? Anthony Downs’ (1957)
An Economic Theory of Democracy suggested parties take positions on the same issues which are assessed by individual voters' preferences, who in turn inhabit a ‘issue space’. Parties therefore arrange their policies on a left-right spectrum and concentrate them where the greatest numbers of voters are found. Therefore Downs' argument implies parties move around the spectrum at will in the pursuit of votes.

Parties however are creatures of the
cleavage structures from which they emerged, hence party identity is always distinctive vis a vis its competitors. Furthermore even the most careerist politicians possess some kind of ideological affinity to their party. As far as Klingemann, Hofferbert and Budge are concerned commitment to political ideas precludes the rational-opportunist behaviour predicted by Downs’s model of policy formation. This is not to say party positions are static. Parties tend to avoid outright repudiation of former policies for ideological and face-saving reasons, but can and do selectively emphasise and de-emphasise parts of their programmatic inventory in their push toward voter concentrations. This is borne out empirically by parties offering selective policy agendas to the electorate, rather than detailed policies as part of a wide-ranging agenda.

Downs also argues because elections are fought on the basis of policy differences single-party majority governments must implement its promises on pain of electoral punishment. This position is problematic because it assumes the electorate will always have perfect knowledge of government performance, and overlooks ways in which governments muddy the indicators of policy implementation. He also ignores how portions of the electorate can be mobilised by ideological affinity over policy content. Nevertheless there are costs associated with ‘nonfulfillment’. If electorates miss discrepancies between pronouncements and implementation, it is likely to be highlighted by the opposition. This can be used to undermine confidence in a party’s governing capacities and lead to lost votes and internal strains. Programme also binds government because it has been widely discussed and criticised by party members, opponents, the media, and the public in the run up to elections. These constitute powerful constraining pressures. Thirdly from a purely rational standpoint, a pre-made programme allows incoming ministers to get on with the business of running their departments rather than having to formulate new policy.

Do politicians keep their promises? Yes and no. Klingemann, Hofferbert and Budge's argument suggests liberal democracies possess mechanisms that nudge politicians to remain faithful to their manifestoes. The costs of non-compliance are such that governing parties much prefer the
sphere of non-punishment to setting their nose against media hostility and public outrage. Politicians always have a choice, but they go against their pre-election commitments at their own risk.

NB Politics, Policies, and Democracy found a high correspondence between policy pledges and outcomes in government.


Boffy said...

I tend to agree with Klingemann et al's thesis within limits. I'd argue it explains the actions of the Tories, and other right-wing populists such as the Tea Party. Each Party has to build an electoral coalition i.e. obtain sufficient votes from different sections of the electorate. A Right-wing Party cannot build such a coalition by adopting a Left-wing platform. Hence their tends to be a scrabble for the middle, but with each Party straddling it to maintain its own core vote. The main reason Labour lost was it not only lost its core vote, but in changed circumstances, the Tories were able to appeal to a more right-wing constituency on the basis of "common sense" economics.

But, if parties tend to occupy the middle ground then it is fairly apparent that the policies geared to that space are more able to be implemented. Its when policies stray too far from that middle ground that they run into trouble. One of the first things I can remember learning at University in Politics was the stats on how much of the programme of an outgoing Government was taken over by the incoming Government - 90%, which challenged even in the 70's the idea that one Government undid what the other had done. Not surprising really given Buttskillism.

Surely what is important is not the quantity of promises made broken, but the importance of the policy. Moreover, promises can be kept, and policies implemetned, but the content of the policy gutted. As I've written elsewhere, bouregois democracy could not work unless Governments had a considerable degree of fredom to implement their policies, because if the State had to overtly intervene every time Government policy did not meet the immediate needs of the ruling class, then the true nature of the state as a class state, and the sham nature of bouregois democracy would become obvious. The ruling class and its state tend to play a long game, which they can afford to do as they hold all the cards, and most of the time Governments are not going to act in ways that severely threaten its interests, and to the extent they do, nudge is better than intervention. Only when those interests are immediately and seriously threatened - e.g. Chile - does the State take off the velvet glove, and display the iron fist of the ruling class. The current machinations within the EU show the multiplicity of ways in which pressure can be applied upon Governments, and frasctions of Capital in the interests of the dominant section of Capital. And, in those cases, Governments frequently will sacrifice themselves. Possibly, Blair's decision to go ahead with the Iraq War is another example of that, though even now, I'm not sure how much even Bush's actions were representative of the views and interests of US Capital, and the US State. At the very least, I think there was a split view within the ruling class, and within the State, hence the internal feuding between the State Department, Defence Department, and the CIA.

Chris said...

Boffy talks about the centre ground as if it is god given. For one thing the agenda is set by ruling classes through the media and for another, what was the centre 20 years ago can be the right or left now. There isn’t only a battle for the centre ground but a battle for what and where the centre ground is.
Boffy mentions the Tories so called populism, though how popular is it? The logic of Boffy is that the Tories have abandoned the class they represent and decided the only way to achieve power is through a populist programme. Two problems with this, it isn’t that popular and why don’t they do what they have done historically, spout ‘populist’ rhetoric only to implement the opposite?
No the truth is this decimation of the public sector is a ruling class project, business wants more discipline in the workforce and doesn’t want people spending so much money on Health and Education but the plastic novelty shit they produce! Or if they have to spend money on Health and Education etc, let business make money out of it.

Phil said...

Come on Chris, you know as well as I do Boffy is a Marxist and wouldn't regard the centre ground as some immutable phenomena. I don't believe we need to go into lengthy excursions on dialectics every time we have a debate. Indeed, as Boffy notes the centre ground when he came of age was Butskillism. Now it's somewhere between weak social democracy and neoliberal vandalism.

We'd do well if debates concentrated on facts and not the muddying of waters.

Chris said...


My point about the centre ground was really to make an argument against Boffy's idea that the Tories are going against the wishes of 'big' capital or in effect the system they have fought for all these years, and instead are so desperate for power that they are willing to see the whole thing come crashing down. Sorry, I don't buy that argument and neither do most Marxists.

I wasn't indulging in some pedantic philosophising. (Even if that is how it came across).

Boffy tries to ram this point home at every available opportunity, I feel the need to conter it at every available opportunity.

Boffy said...


I think you can now see what I was talking about. A prize if you can see in my comments above any mention of "Big Capital", or whether the Tories were acting against its interests.