Ed Miliband, Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander are looking grey. I am not talking about their hair colour (especially not in brazenly ginger Alexander's case) or even their choice of clothing (unremarkable, in all three instances). These are the men charged with writing their respective party's manifestos. It is certainly not the politics of personality.
In fact, it is better not to have one at all. These men are not the life and soul of the party. They are the awkward guy in the kitchen, hanging out by the olives, bobbing their heads to a song they don't know. TS Eliot wrote a poem called The Hollow Men. It is an apt description for the job of manifesto writer, because Miliband, Letwin and Alexander are not scribing their own vision. They are vessels for other people's opinions. Co-ordinators. Project managers. Not required to be a great orator or the most photogenic. They practise a quiet kind of politics. Not hidden in smoke-filled rooms, but not exactly on the frontline either.
The task of writing a manifesto could be dismissed as dry, arduous and frustrating. "Glad when it'll be out of the way," Miliband remarks. But the job doesn't have to be dull. Despite being three years in gestation, this manifesto is not all about the preparation. It is a shifting corpus. Lobbygate, expenses, Unite and Ashcroft have created an impetus for a fresh start in Westminster. But the banking collapse and recession mean that this year's manifesto must be conducted on the tightest of budgets. Everything must be costed. And each pledge, promise and guarantee must stand up to the harshest scrutiny.
In the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Miliband sits on a (faux?) black leather chair, facing a blank wall. It's not the most inspiring setting. But Miliband gets very little time for contemplation. As well as writing the manifesto, he must balance his time as secretary of state with raising his nine-month old son, Daniel. "Anyone who is in the front lines of politics would say that it is very, very exacting," he says. "When you've got a young family, it makes it hard to spend time with them. It is definitely part of doing two jobs in one."
One of the most diffi cult positions for Miliband to shore up at this election is the ‘why wasn't this done in the last 13 years?' accusation. His team has sought to combat this by focusing on nice-sounding but puzzlingly empty phrases such as "new challenges facing the country" and "the next phase of renewal". Miliband explains: "I think there's an opportunity now to reform our politics which wasn't there, wasn't so front of mind, in the last decade. Expenses has given us a moment when we need to respond and show we can reform our politics." An emphasis on ‘going forwards' takes the heat off unfulfilled manifesto pledges such as reform of the House of Lords. Conveniently, it also places little focus on Gordon Brown and his personal popularity rating.
Miliband denies this. "We're open about the fact that we've been in power for a decade. We can all be obsessed about fourth terms. But people don't think about their lives in the space of political eras." Do people want another five years of Brown though? "I think you'll see Gordon strengthen in this campaign," he replies.
Miliband's Conservative counterpart, Oliver Letwin, believes that Labour will still have a difficult time shoring up the ‘13 year' accusation. "They could try to claim that all the things we analyse as needing to be done have in fact been done, or don't need to be done. But the difficulty is that there are many people in the Labour Party who recognise that there are these problems and that they haven't solved them." In his parliamentary office, surrounded by books and dark wooden furniture, Letwin lounges in more comfortable surroundings. Outside, the rest of the floor is more or less empty. Despite working on ‘the corridor of power' with most of the senior Tory frontbench team, the place is deserted (we meet weeks before the dissolution of Parliament). Letwin's advisor explains that most have already moved up the road to Tory HQ to begin work on the election.
The Conservatives have been planning for the following three weeks since Brown chose not to call an election almost three years ago. This is reflected in their lengthy manifesto, dubbed a "blueprint for power". But what if there had not been so much time for planning and Brown had called a snap election? Letwin is surprisingly frank. "You can't have a back-up. We thought ‘there's no point in trying to plan for an election we don't know the timing of'. We just have to assume that Parliament runs its course and we get things in order. Luckily, from our point of view, we've had enough time to complete that process."
Miliband, on the other hand, did write a full manifesto. It just never saw the light of day. "The manifesto of 2007, which will no doubt be published at some point by the historians, would have been very different." The 2010 Labour manifesto will not be a lengthy tome. "I'm very struck by the 1945 manifesto which was a short document. I suspect we won't quite be able to meet that length but it's important that people get a sense of what you're about, not every last micro-policy."
The Lib Dem manifesto is slimmer and more "democratic", according to Danny Alexander, chairman of the Liberal Democrat manifesto group. Most of the concise document we see before us has been mulled over and approved by party members months ago. Alexander used the cold spell at the beginning of this year as an opportunity to work on details. "I was stuck in Aviemore, unable to get out because of the depths of snow around the house. I had time to sit down with the text of the manifesto on my computer and work through it in detail, which frankly I wouldn't have had if I had been able to get out around the constituency."
Alexander, who resembles a grown-up Scottish Harry Potter, has not just had to do battle with the snow. He also had the unenviable task of putting some of the party's most championed policies on hold. Tie eschew, glasses pushed back up his nose, he explains: "We decided to do something which I am very surprised none of the other parties chose to do. In times of plenty, maybe it's okay to offer manifestos which are long shopping lists of expensive policy pledges, and sadly it seems that is the approach that Labour and the Tories are taking. We've gone the opposite way. We've said we are only going to make the promises that we can keep." This means that free personal care for the elderly, a citizen's pension and a universal system of free childcare for children up to three are among those pledges that have been downgraded to aspirations.
Does this mean that Labour and the Conservatives have been dishonest about what they can achieve? Both Letwin and Miliband maintain that this is not the case. Letwin argues that his party's green papers "fit like a glove" with the general programme to get the deficit under control. And Miliband parrots the language of Alistair Darling's recent Budget: "We've got a very clear defi cit reduction plan. But we understand that you need to grow your way out of the recession and you need to have economic growth making a big contribution to reducing the deficit."
As well as the economy, the other priority for the election is restoring trust in politics. All three men claim progressive credentials. The Conservatives want to open up government to the people. "One of the big problems at the moment is that an awful lot of government is extremely obscure - you don't know what people are spending." Letwin believes that his party has been more open with the electorate about policy-making than any previous opposition he can think of.
But Miliband feels the Tories lack strong ideas. "You'd have thought they would have a lot of time to prepare and they'd have had some ‘whizzo bang' ideas," Miliband says. "But honestly - I don't say this, well, I do say this with some glee - but I don't say it nonobjectively. I genuinely thought they would have some things that would knock people's socks off."
Letwin, whose Etonian drawl has a tendency to make him sound dispassionate, suddenly becomes very animated on this topic. He points to the dozen green paper documents that have been over two years in the making. "Each time we've launched a particular green paper, there's been a pretty good reception. My only complaint is that about 10 minutes later everyone seems to forget. You'll see the manifesto contains a huge number of very specific policies."
The Lib Dems' Nick Clegg is attempting to present the party as ‘not like those other two'. Alexander follows this train of thought, describing the Labour/Tory approach as "tinkering on the surface". "‘Let's carry on with the old boy's club in the way that we always have.' We are different to that." It is a bold claim and it is diffi cult to see how his party can genuinely claim not to be tainted by those infamous Daily Telegraph front pages.
Despite their differences, one noticeable similarity between these men is their closeness to their party leaders. Miliband is a former researcher and speechwriter for Gordon Brown. He maintains that what he has produced is very much Brown's manifesto. "He has got to be the person who is happy with it." Does it help to be close to Brown? "You have to have a sense of the kinds of things he would want to see and the kind of things he wouldn't. You have lively dialogue about different things." Lively dialogue with the same man who allegedly threw a mobile phone at a colleague? "Contradicting some of the images, he is someone who very much listens to the people around him and what they think matters," Miliband adds.
When Michael Howard stepped down as Conservative Party leader in 2005, it was Letwin, an established Tory frontbencher, who publicly backed David Cameron, a fellow Etonian, to replace him. Equally, Alexander is familiar with Clegg. He gave up his position as Lib Dem work and pensions spokesman in 2007 to focus on his role as chief of staff to the leader. "The fact that Nick and I worked so closely together - and have done since he was elected leader - really helps make sure that we are going in the right direction in any particular issue. It hasn't by and large a process of sitting down scratching our heads, trying to invent policies on the back of an envelope."
Despite this examination, the reality is that very few voters will actually read the manifestos. "I'm under no illusions that manifestos will not be bestsellers," Miliband admits. "There is, unfortunately, an idea that politics is somehow about slogans or soundbites," Letwin agrees. We need to achieve a more serious kind of politics in which people actually attend to detailed policy."
Letwin would certainly take on the challenge again if asked. "It is the most interesting thing I have ever done. One of the reasons David asked me to do this is because I'm long in the tooth." But Alexander, 37, and Miliband, 40, are not quite so resigned to spending the rest of their political life surrounded by policy documents and public consultations. Miliband, who is among those tipped to be the next leader of the Labour Party, says he would certainly write a manifesto again "if someone asked me". Alexander, whose name is also bandied about as a future party leader, is even more lukewarm. "It's probably something you do once, to be honest."
Knowing that their detailed policy work is unlikely to fly off the shelves at Waterstone's, how have these men approached the task? Miliband describes himself a coordinator. To him, it is the bigger argument that matters. Letwin, in a wonderful hollowman phrase, says he acts as a "method of translating" the vision of the shadow cabinet and David Cameron. None of them claim the manifesto is about ‘their' vision. Instead, they insist they are just relaying the vision of their cabinet colleagues, the party and (they hope) the wider public.
These men are under no illusion that what they have toiled away at for almost three years will potentially be picked apart by journalists, ridiculed by opponents and expected to withstand one of the bleakest political environments for decades. "I'm not saying it's going to be poetry, but I think manifestos rarely are," Miliband says. It might not be the verse of TS Eliot. But it is artful. To inspire a bruised electorate to trust politicians again requires a masterstroke. Hollow, these men may be. But the rhetoric they create must be full of substance. The prospect is enough to turn anyone grey.
WHAT THE MANIFESTOS SAY
- Complete reform of the House of Lords through the installation of a fullyelected chamber.
- Hold a referendum on the alternative vote system.
- Guarantee diagnostic tests (and results) in suspected cancer cases within a week of GP referral.
- One-to-one support in literacy and numeracy for 60,000 children every year.
- Increase public choice when selecting hospitals and GPs. Put patients in charge of their health records and end mixed-sex wards.
- Raise the entry requirements for teacher training to a 2:2 at degree level and give headteachers power to increase pay for their best staff.
- Publish expenses claims online and introduce tighter regulation on lobbyists.
- Rebalance the tax system so that no one pays tax on earnings below £10,000.
- Provide respite care for a million carers, halve the size of the Department of Health and cut spending on quangos by a third.
- Replace the national curriculum with a ‘minimum curriculum' to allow teachers more flexibility.