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Beyond the Manifesto

Does the language of political commitments suggest the likelihood of public consultations?

One clear advantage to having a majority Government once again is that its agenda should be discernible from a single pre-election document – in this case the Conservative Party Manifesto. Some of us had erroneously assumed that the source document that matters might have been a new Coalition Agreement. So, we may not have paid quite enough attention to the individual Party manifestos. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that as they were written in the expectation of some inter-party horse-trading, newly-appointed Government Ministers may well be surprised to find that they will be expected to deliver their party’s programme – in full!

So what can we expect in terms of public consultation?

The first thing to note is that the Conservatives said little or nothing about the role of public engagement in our evolving democracy. Unless, of course you include the In-out Referendum on the EU. And unlike 2010, where a Localism agenda was a major theme, there is little focus on direct democracy apart from continuing support for Neighbourhood Planning.

What we have is a torrent of commitments ranging from high-profile strategic promises that were endlessly promoted during the General Election through to special niche-policies likely to be relevant or of interest only to relatively few. What is fascinating is to study the language, and to try to guess whether the words used may have a bearing upon the likelihood of a formal consultation. Let us remember that one of the main legal developments in recent years has been the trend by the claimants for judicial review to rely upon the doctrine of legitimate expectation. Might the phraseology of Manifesto commitments influence the Courts in deciding whether or not there is a legitimate expectation of a consultation?

Clearly there are some definite commitments. We will implement … is pretty clear-cut. Ditto for We will introduce… Or We will create, And We will reform …. Planned legislation is also fairly definite, though there are surprisingly few proposals for new laws in this Manifesto. Now any commitments that directly affect the interests of particular stakeholder organisations, from local authorities through to voluntary bodies, should ideally be the subject of consultation. Failure to do this and the Government will risk losing a judicial review – just as Michael Gove did when his cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010 was successfully challenged in the High Court.

But what of more subtle commitments? When the Manifesto says “We want to increase…” (the % of public appointments going to women) is it perhaps just an aspiration?  Here is another one. “We have an ambition …” (to double the number of first-time home buyers). Plenty of wriggle-room there, it seems.

The same applies to a range of expressions designed to show support for various ideas or policies. “We will encourage …” is one term we found. “We will back…” (new Scientific Institutions) is another. Yet another formulation is “We will provide significant new support for …” (Mental Health). More straightforwardly, “We will support …” which is a statement of policy. Maybe the most significant is the commitment to support the ‘safe development of shale gas’. Stand by for controversial consultations on Fracking!

Some commitments are about the performance of existing Government policies. It says “We will deliver…” (3 million apprenticeships). In respect of the National Health Service, it says “We will guarantee …” (same day GP appointments for over-75 year-olds). For a different public service “We will improve …” (the diversity of Police recruitment). Where it has started something “We will complete …” (a Network of Maritime Conversation Zones)

As always there are subjects where the Manifesto authors want to hedge their bets. “We will review…” is a time-honoured way of keeping options open whilst promising nothing. It is also the most likely formula that will result in a specific consultation. In addition therefore to the widely anticipated Defence Review later this year, expect major consultations on Legal Aid, on Hate Crimes and the possible withdrawal of benefits for people refusing certain medical treatments. Here we anticipate a vigorous debate about Human Rights – just as the Government seeks to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.

All Governments start off with a long wish-list like this, and has to prioritise. But unlike its predecessors, this administration takes office when the public’s appetite for, and capacity to participate in public engagement has never been higher. Government consultations will come thick and fast, and, whilst the current Principles apply, will come in unpredictable shapes and sizes. Equally however, there will be the need for large numbers of local exercises, as new infrastructure is planned, housing sites sought, energy sources renewed, constituency boundaries re-drawn, NHS services re-engineered and public bodies try to do more with less.

Since the Scottish Referendum, there has been a change in the democratic mood music. Millions of votes for UKIP is also a sign that people are less content to trust the main Westminster parties to get on with it, and may yet change their minds about the first-past-the post system. Clever politicians realise that it is important to build coalitions of support and seek the consensual middle-ground whenever possible. For these and other reasons, consultation will continue to be an integral part of the political decision-making, an effective safety-vale and an invaluable opportunity to those affected by change to offer their views and opinions.


  • Is your organisation likely to be affected by proposals in the Conservative Manifesto?
  • Will your organisation wish to see a consultation on some of the Manifesto proposals? Should you be requesting one? If there is a consultation, will you participate?

 This is the 276th Tuesday Topic; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement


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About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

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