Pledge to use the five point plan with care

Ed Balls made waves today with his first Labour Party conference speech as Shadow Chancellor, but it was his use of the five pledge ploy that was most interesting to me.

His five point plan for growth was well packaged for news gatherers and the public, reducing complex policy into memorable bite sized chunks. Some are quick to make the point that this is an old PR tactic that harks back to New Labour’s glory days, when the party framed its 1997 manifesto on the back of a pledge card. It was simple and brilliant and set a mode of political communication that remains well used today.

In fact, it seems that most organisations are pulling out the pledges, almost always with the help of PR advisors in the background.

The Liberal Democrats tried the trick at the 2001 general election, with Charles Kennedy’s pledges for a greener Britain. The Home Office upped the ante with its 10-point Policing Pledge in 2009, which was reversed by the Government last year. David Cameron used the approach with his ‘five guarantees’ on the NHS in the summer. On a global scale, the G7 countries came together recently to make five promises to tackle the global crisis.

At its best, I think this is a great way to communicate areas of policy in a way that can connect with the public. But it does have its drawbacks. 

One of the main problems for me is that, by the their very design, the promises are memorable and will become a millstone around the neck of those who are seen to overpledge and underdeliver a few years down the track. Does anyone think the G7 delivered on its pledge to get lending flowing again? Did the move make them look like they were ‘taking action’ or being ‘decisive’ later on? Didn’t think so. 

The result of this perceived non-delivery is that pledges can generate cynicism as well as headlines. Watching the news tonight, Labour must be happy with how today’s pledge has been reported. But one only needs to read some of the reaction to previous pledges to see that negativity and cynicism can persist long after the headlines have subsided. The best way to address this is to deliver those promises. Without that, the pledges will be seen as just words.

Ultimately, it’s worth asking whether the public register in significant enough numbers for the pledges to make a difference or if they simply filter them out along with the rest of the noise they are bombarded with in their daily lives. Going by the news coverage generated, there is little reason to think that most people shouldn’t at least know that the pledges exist. But with huge numbers of people saying they don’t know what our leaders stand for, there is evidence to suggest that the pledges don’t always hit home.

Either way, I am sure we won’t have seen the last of the pledges yet.