Following the publication of the Obesity Health Alliance’s Manifesto for the next General Election, our Government Affairs Lead, Alfie Slade, reflects on the process and what learnings we can share with our members.
What’s the point of a manifesto? It is a question that a lot of people who work in politics ask themselves. Why do we put so much focus on a document that the political parties only do on sufferance, generally keep as vague as possible and rarely keep to?
In the charity world, we put a lot of emphasis on securing commitments, or even just vaguely supportive wording, in a political party’s manifesto. The reason for this is often put down to it being something we can “hold people to” – similar to a Government target.
But I don’t think this is true anymore. Particularly in the Boris Johnson era, both manifesto commitments (40 new hospitals) and Government targets (halving childhood obesity by 2030) were not delivered, and most people would say that they were never going to be. Many of Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign commitments have also been rowed back on in the last three years. Neither situation resulted in any notable political consequences. In both cases, much of the media coverage has an undertone of “if you actually believed any of this, that’s on you”.
All of this was swirling around my mind as we began to think about our own manifesto for the Obesity Health Alliance. Charity manifestos are not quite the same thing as a political party manifesto, but they serve the same purpose. Firstly, to outline a vision and a roadmap of how to reach it, as well as be a bit of a sales pitch for the organisation. Secondly, to build support for your ideas amongst influential people and provide a rallying point for supporters to get behind.
The day before we launched our manifesto, the Labour party released their ‘Health Missions’ for the next Government. One of the headline items was a commitment to deliver the restrictions on junk food advertising that was the first, and most important, call in our manifesto. It certainly made the event a more cheerful affair. In large part, this was thanks to a coordinated push by our alliance to secure commitment from all political parties to this legislation.
Of course, for many third sector organisations, the intention of these documents is only to outline your vision and provide a consensus document, not secure political commitments – which is perfectly legitimate. But for organisations seeking to secure commitments from political parties, we have to start treating pre-election commitments as it they are policy announcements from a sitting Government. From the experience of our manifesto, I have come up with five key elements to give the best chance of securing a genuine commitment in the current political environment.
The first, and most important, component is timing. Many charity organisations publish their manifestos six months to a year in advance of an election. We are currently about a little over a year away from the next election (at most), and opposition parties have largely finalised the main points of their manifestos. Any new announcements need months of polling, focus group testing and internal wrangling for even the mildest of proposals. The governing party will base their manifesto on work they have already started in office.
We began writing our manifesto in Spring 2022, and had a working document that we could use privately with political stakeholders by January 2023. Even this was cutting it fine – we were only just able to get our ideas over to the relevant people before Labour’s health missions were drafted.
The second most important component is consensus. If there’s one thing I hear from politicians and their advisors more than anything else, it’s how busy they are and how overwhelmed they are with people who want them to do ‘just one thing’. Being able to go to these politicos and say that dozens of the largest organisations in a sector have all agreed a way forward is the greatest asset a charity can have. It’s something the OHA does very well, thanks to the knowledge, good will and support of our fantastic members.
On the flip side, the absolute worst thing a politician can hear is different asks on the same issue from the same types of organisations. It’s not that politicians will pick one over the other – they almost always will elect to do nothing at all.
The next vital component is evidence. An overwhelming case that the policy will work is important, but there are two other factors that, from my experience, are crucial for policymakers. One is polling. You can never have enough polling to show public support for your policy. The second is costing. We were fortunate that our key policy call to tackle junk food marketing cost the Government nothing – anything that costs money needs to have a watertight financing plan, or it’s never going anywhere. Where possible, I always advise against asking politicians for money upfront. A Conservative MP that I was working on a expensive social care campaign with advised us to “win them over, then put the price tag at the end”.
Of course, for evidence to be believed there must be trust, the fourth component. Trust comes from the name recognition and credibility of the organisation, but most importantly, it comes from relationships. Politicians and their advisors need to know your name, your expertise, and that you are honest with them – that means sharing the negatives as well as the positives. That only comes from years of investment in building up relationships by good public affairs professionals.
And finally, my golden rule for all political messaging is Keep it Simple. The first piece of feedback I received on our manifesto was “I love that it’s all on one page” – and I concur. If the summary of your proposal is more than half a page of text, it’s too complicated for political stakeholders.
This also goes for the scale of the change you are asking for – a tangible policy that can be practically implemented is the only thing that will get traction. Lofty ambitions or sweeping social changes might be the right thing to do, but they are non-starters for a government that wants to stay, or come into, power. In fact, they will often undermine a wider cause by reinforcing common perceptions of charities as naive, idealistic and unpragmatic.
So, there you have it, the five components of influencing a manifesto: Timing, Consensus, Evidence, Trust and Simplicity. If a charity manifesto, and the campaign around it, has all those factors, you have my vote of confidence that it can deliver a political change.