Party poopers

The election manifestos of the main political parties contain scant pickings for design, and commentators are also concerned about the collective failure to address the gaping hole in public finances. Angus Montgomery reports

It’s perhaps not surprising that the majority of the design industry’s reaction to the three main party General Election manifestos, unveiled last week, has focused on their covers rather than the policies that lie within.

Labour’s manifesto – designed by Saatchi & Saatchi with Ridley Scott Associates – hit the headlines following its 12 April launch thanks to its striking cover image, which The Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey – among many other observers – likened to ’a heroic Soviet-style family, circa 1950’.

The Conservative Party missive, published on the following day, could not have been more different. A hardback book, designed by Perfect Day, carries the message ’Invitation to join the Government of Britain’, backed by an austere Tory blue. In a letter to the Conservative Party posted on the Asbury & Asbury blog, copywriter Nick Asbury points out, ’The way I understand things, it’s us who are meant to invite you to form a Government, not the other way round.’

Released on 14 April, the Liberal Democrat manifesto, designed by APDA London, wasn’t quite greeted with the same level of excitement. Simon Myers, managing director of Figtree, describes it as having ’all the style and appeal of an NHS waiting card’.

The welter of comment about manifesto design has been balanced by a muted response from the design industry about the policies they contain – policies that could shape the industry’s future. The reason for this is that – give or take the odd tweak here and there – the messages given to the design industry by Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are pretty much identical.

All three recognise the importance of the creative industries to the economy, and they all pledge to support innovation and small and medium-sized enterprises. On the downside, all three also note the parlous state of the UK economy, and highlight the need for publicsector spending cuts.

Any differences appear to come in minor policy tweaks that will only affect a limited number of people. Amanda Merron, partner at accountant Kingston Smith W1, says, ’The impression I get is that most of this is tinkering around the edges rather than doing one big bold thing – which isn’t surprising, because you can’t do the big bold moves when there aren’t the funds to support them.’

Phil McCabe, media and PR manager for the Forum for Private Business, says, ’A central issue is how to plug the gaping hole in public finances, while still creating a financial environment that is conducive to growth.’ Citing Financial Times calculations that claim to reveal a 30bn deficit in all the parties’ policy pledges, he says, ’There are still holes in all the party proposals.’

Labour’s much-publicised proposal to increase National Insurance by 1p is roundly condemned. Merron says, ’Design businesses are their constituency. When you stick on an extra 2-3 per cent on to your wage bill, and add that to the 2-3 per cent income that a lot of people are losing at the moment, then it will pretty much wipe out your profit margin.’

However, the party’s proposal for a new UK Finance for Growth fund, comprising private money and £4bn of public cash, is welcomed. McCabe says, ’Brilliant – but we need better bank lending as well.’ Labour has also proposed a Small Business Credit Adjudicator, which will ensure that businesses are not ’turned down unfairly’ for bank loans.

As a bit of levity, Labour is also proposing to introduce a new biennial Festival of Britain, set to open in 2013. The Conservatives are praised for their proposals to cut the headline rate of Corporation Tax to 25p and the Small Business Rate to 20p, a move Merron says is ’to be welcomed’.

The Tories have also outlined plans to deliver 25 per cent of Government research and procurement contracts through SMEs. Much of the policy
affecting design and innovation was outlined in James Dyson’s generally welcomed Ingenious Britain report (News Analysis, DW 18 March).

Paul Thompson, Rector of the Royal College of Art, says, ’The RCA supports the recommendations of the Ingenious Britain report, and believes design should be prioritised as an essential component of technology innovation.’ The Liberal Democrats provide the most detailed breakdown of how their policies will affect the economy, tabulated in the form of a budget.

They are also the only party to explicitly suggest scrapping Regional Development Agencies, which could adversely affect regional design networks. The Liberal Democrats are also alone in putting forward a firm policy on packaging design, calling for better design standards to reduce excess packaging (DW 10 September 2009).

But while the minutiae of the individual policies may differ, the overall message appears to be much the same – leading to an understandable response of ennui from the design industry. Deborah Dawton, chief executive of the Design Business Association, says, ’At a point when trust and respect in politicians is probably at its lowest ebb ever, not one of the parties is facing up to the situation that the country knows it has to face head on and resolve: our debt.

We know it’s going to hurt and none of us likes pulling the plaster off slowly, yet that’s what they’re doing.’ She concludes, ’So which of the parties is capable of addressing the situation? Confused about your criteria for assessment? That’s not surprising. It’s like being asked to select a design consultancy on the basis of which one will do the least bad job.’

Design industry references in the manifestos

  • Labour-one, as part of the creative industries that have ’flourished’ across Britain and account for 10% of the national economy
  • Conservatives-none, but design is dealt with in depth in James Dyson’s Ingenious Britain report
  • Liberal Democrats- one, in the context of better design reducing packaging waste

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