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U-turns in the UK: Should politicians have to keep their promises?

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If there’s been a theme to the last two weeks of British politics, it’s U-turns. From issues as diverse as tax credits for working people and Saudi prison contracts, Westminster seems more open than ever to changing its mind. But why are some of these decisions considered pragmatic, while others decried as signs of weakness?

On the BBC’s weekly audience participation panel show Question Time, a working mother, and Conservative voter, launched an emotional tirade against the current government for breaking its pre-election promise to not lower tax-credits, which act as top-up payments for working people in charge of children or disabled relatives. The story broke in the same week that the government announced it would be signing off on the creation of the country’s first selective state school in 50 years, after previously saying this was not an option.

Recently, the Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, also changed his mind about not opposing plans for a new fiscal charter, a policy which would prevent future governments from running a deficit in times of economic upturn. This U-turn sent waves of disapproval through Westminster, most notably in McDonnell's own party. Accusations were made that the reversal was fuelling growing divisions in the Shadow Cabinet.

However, the same people who criticised McDonnell for displaying signs of weakness seem resigned to the fact that the broken promises of the Conservatives are mere political strategy, whilst the Prime Minister cuts the benefits of the very working people he seeks to protect. The notion that a strong politician is one who sticks to their guns seems to fall by the wayside of ideological politics. It seems well acknowledged that a promise in politics is little more than a campaign strategy.

The working mother on Question Time cannot democratically express her anger at the government until the next election in 2020, and until then she still has to pay the rent without the help of tax credits. What if there were legal mechanisms in place to prevent parties from breaking their pre-election promises? How would things be different if, for example, former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s 2010 pledge to not raise tuition fees had been legally binding? We wouldn't have seen them increased threefold when his party went into coalition with the Conservatives, or the protests which followed against the fee hike. 

Although the logistics of actually implementing a legal mechanism would be unmanageably complex, the notion that forgotten manifestos are just another part of politics is one that needs to change. Should U-turns made at a time when the new Labour leaders are going through a deliberate period of debate and restructuring really be considered a greater political sin than actively breaking pre-election promises? We need to ask ourselves whether we want a politics in which those at the top are rewarded for ignoring their own manifestos, and vilified for listening to other people’s points of view.