Not unlike politicians during their campaign speeches, I will begin with a quote and then throw in some statistics.
In 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron talked about delivering on promises:
“Everyone wants to make politics and politicians more accountable… The most important part of accountability is politicians being judged on whether they keep their promises.”
There are dozens of similar quotes from world leaders, but the fact is we all agree that accountability for promises made to voters forms a cornerstone of modern democracy.
According to a YouGov survey in 2012, 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time – you can’t believe a word they say”. Another YouGov poll showed that 72% of respondents thought that, when voting in Parliament, MPs should pay a great deal of attention to “the promises they made at the most recent election”. A staggering 2% believe that is what MPs pay most attention to in reality.
There is no doubt that political promises are important. Yet everyone is sceptical, having seen too many made, and too few kept. It has practically become the norm for politicians to say one thing and then do another. We have learnt to expect broken promises.
For voters this leads to distaste for politics, political apathy, and belief that their vote doesn’t count. In the General Election of 2010, Britain saw a 65% turnout, only the fourth time since 1945 that the percentage had been below 70%…
For politicians this translates into lower ratings, “flip-flop” accusations, and even more ammunition for their opponents.
So why not promise less and deliver more?
The reality is that many campaign promises cannot be kept.
As omnipotent as politicians may sometimes seem, they cannot possibly understand or predict all the circumstances – political, social and economic – that may come into play by the time they have to deliver on their promises.
Should we therefore blame the politicians for being over confident when they keep promising more and more? Surely they cannot all be counting on pure luck or suffering from delusions of grandeur? Does this make them all liars?
Some of them – perhaps. Others are merely victims of the rules imposed by the political environment, the media, and society itself. In a way, we all share the blame for broken promises.
As voters, we do not remember kept promises as clearly as those that were broken. It is human nature to focus on the negative.
As for the media, they need a scandal on the front page to sell more copies, not an “all is well” story.
And even if we do forget about a politician’s broken promise for a second, his or her opponents will never fail to remind us of their rival’s poor track record come election time. Once again, the focus remains negative.
Last but not least, this is a marketing issue of supply and demand. After all, we are a consumer society.
The Marketing Dilemma
When the election season begins, politicians find themselves under a lot of pressure to make promises they know they cannot keep.
Gone are the days of politicians who could afford not to care what people thought. They must now find a way to appeal to every section of society – which is why we often find ourselves pondering over several near identical campaign manifestos…
Campaign platforms are, effectively, marketing proposals. The candidate is a product, which must be differentiated from all other products. Those who do not make grand promises appear bland compared to their opponents. And politicians know this.
Margaret Thatcher raised this very point 47 years ago, when she spoke about the modern practice of elections:
“All too often one is now asked ‘what are you going to do for me?’, implying that the programme is a series of promises in return for votes. All this has led to a curious relationship between elector and elected. If the elector suspects the politician of making promises simply to get his vote, he despises him, but if the promises are not forthcoming he may reject him.”
Indeed, we demand promises from politicians, just as we expect and like hearing them from consumer brands. “Plenty” kitchen towels promise to pick up more spills faster; the Prime Minister promises to repair the economy sooner. Both promises are, in theory, plausible; but can we really afford to believe the latter with the same subconscious eternal optimism which we seem to uncover when an attractive housewife cleans her kitchen with Plenty on our television screens?
Unfortunately, many prefer politicians who appear over-confident, just as they want brands to promise the most incredible results.
We should accept that some campaign promises are often nothing more than empty marketing statements – and move on.
However, we should not ignore political promises altogether. That would not only put a lot of analysts and speech writers out of their jobs but, more importantly, it would force the PR experts to find something else to “spice up” politicians with. We would be back to Cameron’s receding hairline, Putin’s bare chest, names for Obama’s dogs, and other “celebrity” and “likeability” nonsense.
So let us not render the entire party election process pointless. We might as well continue allowing politicians to secure our votes with battery of claims and promises. However, the degree of public dissatisfaction with irresponsible and opportunistic political propaganda should be greater, and we must direct it at politicians in a constructive way.
The tools are already in place: the internet and social media. We have seen bloggers turn into opposition leaders, political careers brought to an end with one careless tweet, and revolutions being mobilised on Facebook.
The way we engage in the political process is changing.
To quote David Cameron, “Information is power – because information allows people to hold the powerful to account”. Just as democracy depends on accountability and transparency, information and its freedom are key to both.
Some governments have already responded to the demand for free-flowing information by opening up their data to the public. We now have websites and apps that enable people to stay informed about their elected officials and access government data on the go.
But when it comes to political promises, one thing is still missing – focus.
This is where I (finally) come to this website’s concept.
As much as social media has returned passion to politics, our concentration span is badly affected by the “information overflow”. One minute we are tweeting about election results, the next we are back to following Stephen Fry and sharing photos of cats.
There is currently no centralised and independent platform to aggregate and monitor political promises – at least not in the UK.
By launching They Made a Promise, we hope to provide such a platform, which will use public data available online and harness the power of social media – the sole purpose being to hold politicians accountable for the promises they make.
Manifesto pledges have been broken for as long as platform politics has existed, and this is likely to continue. However, it is in our powers to make all promises count. By continuously monitoring political promises, we want to provide voters with a stable source of information, which they can use to inform their voting decisions when their representatives run for re-election and try to get away with broken pledges from their last campaign. (Please visit the About page to learn how this will work.)
By holding politicians to account and constantly tracking their performance based on their promises, we hope to keep them on their toes, to make sure they are more responsible and honest about what they actually can or cannot deliver, and think twice before making empty pledges.
Our plans to facilitate positive change may appear too ambitious, but so are most of the promises that this website will monitor. Politicians should stop promising us the Moon. A realistic plan for reducing the deficit would do just fine for now.
Editor, They Made a Promise
Follow me on Twitter @KonstantinYelin