Manifesto Myopia and Digital Promises

By | May 26, 2017

As electioneering resumes after a respectful pause for sombre reflection all Parties will have considered how to adapt their messages.

Some will resolutely stick to promises already published.  Others will reshuffle priorities.

Mid-campaign adjustments that might otherwise have been scornfully dismissed as U-Turns may now be treated with more tolerance in this second chapter.  The flexibility to absorb feedback, gain insight and change stance is a sign of maturity that is rarely allowed.  In this digital era we are increasingly comfortable with succesive re-drafts, updates and revisions.  Why should politicians be held to past promises when the contexts have changed and the evidence clarified?

Take, for example their manifesto messages on digital connectivity.  Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP have all stated positions and forward aspirations – and that in itself is quite a step forward.   An examiner, however, marking these papers might well be tempted to write ‘Could do better‘ or, more severely, ‘Simply not good enough‘.

All manifesto managers, bombarded with feedback from doorsteps, polling, focus groups and media headlines, will be selective.  The policy positions that emerge will be moderated by views on affordability, practicality and deep reluctance to upset otherwise stable apple carts.

So, although the cautious promises are welcome, they all, inevitably, let slip things that they have failed to grasp.

The Conservative manifesto promises a supposedly impressive goal of 10 million premises served via full fibre (FTTP) by 2022 – a goal that would then bring the UK up to the level that Sweden and many other countries achieved back in 2015.  Yes, it is a lot of catching up but there should be no disguising the reality that as we head towards the Brexit we are a very long way behind.

That distance has built up over more than two decades and the Labour Party manifesto can still only aspire to a mid-range capacity target over the next decade – a view that falls a long way short of  future-proofing the economy.

The SNP hardly fares any better.  For sure they have greater rural challenges but seem to have settled for a lack-lustre target of ‘superfast coverage’ which, by any definition of 2021 needs is neither super nor fast.

Liberal Democrats might, at first sight, seem to promise an outrageous target of 2Gb/s (both-way) services as standard for all SMEs – but with full fibre the marginal cost of more than 1Gb/s is negligible.  So, they really mean to promise future-proofed full fibre – but curiously only for businesses when vast numbers are actually located on predominantly residential premises.  The outdated market definitions of the telephonic era still warp the wiring that other countries have long since consigned to history.

Part of the reasoning behind this caution is a deeply-embedded but totally incorrect perception that large-scale full fibre is so expensive and so disruptive as to be unaffordable and unwelcome.   That false perception was planted in minds nearly 3 decades ago.  It was wrong then and is wrong now – but protection of old markets and job preservation has distorted, and continues to distort, policy and regulation.  So neither of the main parties are willing to admit to this dereliction of duty by leaving broken markets to muddle through.  Better, they’d imagine, to invest in quick-fix pale substitutes and then replace all that investment at some future date when it will become someone else’s problem.

So, all parties need to do better.  Yes the Lib Dems have nearly grasped it.  The last Government had plans – but they are currently on hold during the purdah of this campaign.  Those plans now need urgent upward revision.  The SNP seem to have lost the plot and Labour seem never to have discovered it.  One day they’ll finger those false supplier promises but meanwhile all their manifesto messages are due for an upgrade and re-priortisation.

These campaigns are being fought on issues where the electorate must supposedly choose between degrees of disconnection from Europe.

The economy, citizens, businesses and communities need altogether better interconnectivity.  They do not need to be led up yet another short-sighted cul-de-sac.