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.