A cynic might suggest that none of the manifestos are worth the paper they are written on, given that everything will be negotiable in the event of a hung parliament (a "red line" is simply a reserve price indicator). The profusion of uncosted feelgood pledges might encourage that view, though gestural promises that die like mayflies are nothing new and should always be taken with a pinch of salt ("why me?", shrieks an inconsolable Nick Clegg from the wings). The "cross-dressing", in which parties bid to steal (or at least neutralise) the more attractive items from the opposition's wardrobe, is also hardly novel, nor the knowing media claims that it proves "they're all the same" (so why eject the incumbent?). But manifestos do contain some meaningful intentions, and even philosophical differences. It's just increasingly difficult to winnow this wheat from the chaff.
Over the last 50 years, what a manifesto told us was what the party thought the electorate wanted to hear, which is not the same as what the party wanted to convince the electorate of (other media, such as election broadcasts, posters and sympathetic interviews fulfilled this purpose), let alone how it intended to govern. The success of Labour's 1945 effort was that it famously chimed with popular concerns - food, work and homes (the nationalisation of industry was far more prominent than the proposed NHS) - while the Tories under Churchill still banged on about the Empire and "the small man in business". Even when paper wasn't rationed, early twentieth century manifestos tended to be short and to the point, reading at best like an impassioned speech and at worst like the colourless minutes of some well-meaning committee. This "address to the electors" style started to change in the 1960s as Don Draper & co began to peddle their peddling.
Today, the marketisation of politics has led to monsters of over 80 pages. Though these are often dismissed as "shopping-lists", artlessly lumping a bypass for a marginal constituency with the renewal of Trident, their format is more akin to a company prospectus: acres of boasting and CSR blather mixed with dull photos of "real people". This excess is ideological: politics as "retail", managerial "solutions" for every known ill, and aspirational "goals" for a target-driven life. In terms of content, they aspire to the "reader engagement" of a modern broadsheet newspaper, mixing world affairs with the parochial, but deliver the insipidness of a local free-sheet. I doubt even Ed Miliband's ex-girlfriends could be bothered to read them. This bloat has led in turn to the aide-memoire of "key pledges" on a credit-card-sized card that is most definitely not a credit card (careful with that symbolism, dude). Like corporate lucky bags at party conferences, the real message is that the business of politics is business.
Labour was never going to rediscover its intellectual cojones and ridicule deficit-mania at the eleventh hour, so it was predictable that their 2015 manifesto would commit to something as inane as the "budget responsibility lock". As Chis Dillow points out, this is merely a instance of "acting stupid" in the face of a hostile and irrational media, so we really shouldn't pay it too much attention. The emblematic policy is the abolition of the non-dom rule, which few people understand the technicalities of (it's meant to be obscure) but everyone knows is about fairness - yay, go fairness! This, together with the overall theme that "Britain only succeeds when working families succeed", helps put an egalitarian gloss on the standard neoliberal pabulum (worry about the deficit, accommodate business, improve the quality of labour etc).
Labour party spokesbots have even been able to easily sidestep the claims that abolition of the non-dom ruse may not raise much tax (the dodgers are already working on other dodges) by focusing on the morality of it. We all recognise a cheat when we see one, and we all catch the whiff of the hypocrite in the decision of rich Brits to claim they are really foreigners. Of course, if they were really serious about tax-dodging, or just clearing up administrative anomalies from the days of empire, then Labour would abolish Crown dependency tax-havens and the privileges of the City of London Corporation. At best, the non-dom commitment signals a genuine determination to improve tax receipts (morality has nothing to do with it); at worst, it is euthanising an egregious abuse that has become an embarrassment across the political spectrum in an age of public austerity.
Meanwhile, the Tories have sought to recast themselves as the party of the workers, hence the centrepiece of their manifesto is the commitment to extend right-to-buy to housing association tenants. The purchase price will be heavily-subsidised using funds raised by forcing councils to sell-off their better remaining stock as it becomes vacant. Supposedly, this magic money will compensate housing associations, pay for one-for-one council house replacements (i.e. new, cheaper stock), and also contribute to the cost of preparing brownfield sites. Loaves and fishes come to mind, but with a stiffer challenge in terms of coordination. As a practical policy this is nuts, and likely to face legal challenge by housing associations wondering why it isn't being extended to other private landlords, but it works as an emblematic policy: a Thatcher tribute act in an era of small ambitions (it's worth recalling that it was included as an aspiration in the 1979 Conservative Party manifesto, but that the party subsequently got cold feet due to the encroachment into the private domain). That also explains the subliminal purpose of "the good life" soundbite.
The big difference between the Labour and Tory manifestos is the referendum on EU membership, which represents a clash of interests between different sections of capital. This is echoed in the differences of tone in respect of low-pay: the Tories want to lower the tax burden to subsidise crap wages, while Labour wants to penalise shit jobs to encourage productivity growth. This is a real ethical choice, and one that will affect many workers, but it also represents a strategic moment for British capital, on a par with the pivotal decision by Gordon Brown to block adoption of the euro. Strangely, and despite the presence of UKIP, the EU referendum has received little attention to date beyond some guff about democratic responsibility, which is ironic. It's as if the dominant issue of the next parliament (if the Tories get back into government) cannot be properly discussed, despite its potential to destabilise the economic growth on which so many other policies are dependent.
For the most part, the rest of the two main manifestos represent differences of degree on a neoliberal spectrum. For example, though Labour promise to scrap the Health and Social Care Act, their track-record since 1997 and their commitment to integrate social care suggests more "reform" is on the way. Creeping privatisation may be halted, but it's unlikely to be reversed. Similarly, and despite the claims of supporters, there is more agreement than disagreement on the economy. On the fiscal front, Labour's decision to exclude capital spending from its definition of a balanced budget makes good sense in an era of weak demand and low interest rates, but the hegemonic prejudice against public debt means that we will continue to convert public investment into a private rent through PFI and similar scams. The attitude towards the poor remains punitive: moderate beasting versus full-on beasting.
You don't need to read the manifestos to appreciate the philosophical differences between the parties, with emblematic policies trailed ahead of the big book to ensure media focus and the best of the rest quickly reduced to an online listicle. The Tories' claim to be better managers of the economy reduces to an offer to manage it in the interests of property, inheritance and established business. Labour's claim to be the champions of working people reduces to being better managers of labour in the service of progressive capital. The Tories will feather-bed the comfortably off because they cannot break out of the laager of their class interests. Labour will improve the lot of the poor and underprivileged because big capital has an interest in a higher skill, higher wage working population. The Tories remain conflicted between conservatives and neoliberals. Labour remains conflicted between neoliberals and social democrats. Plus ça change.
At their present rate of growth, the manifestos will graduate from novella to full-blown novel within a decade, but this is a sign of their increasing irrelevance, not their popularity, and not unlike the editorial bulking-up of newspapers in the Internet age. Their size and blandness means they are increasingly of interest only to specialist readers, and that means party activists rather than journalists or political scientists. Gradually, they are moving away from reflecting what the party thinks the electorate wants to hear to what the grandees think will keep party members onside. This in turn reflects the atrophy of party democracy and the corporatisation of the party hierarchies. The manifesto has become the quinquennial report by the board to the minority shareholders.