Roll up, roll up - it’s time to read those manifestos

Ed Miliband with a Labour aide Image copyright PA

Turn off your tablet. Ignore that glossy magazine. That new thriller is going to have to wait. Today's the day you're going to start to read the party manifestos.

What do you mean you've never read one? You should. Here's why.

Politicians agonise for months over what to put in them and what to leave out. They see them as the political equivalent of the "small print" at the bottom of an ad.

If they want to do something unpopular in office they'll tell you that you voted for it because it was "in our manifesto". Fail to deliver something you want and they'll tell you "it wasn't in our manifesto".

Hold on, I hear you say, what about all those broken promises? What about the Tory promise not to have a top down re-organisation of the NHS? Or Labour's promises to abolish boom and bust? Or the Lib Dems plan to scrap tuition fees?

They may convince you that manifesto promises aren't worth the paper they're written on but think again. They actually show the price that's paid by any political leader for not taking their own manifesto seriously.

Still not convinced? Here's another thing the manifestos tells you - how any party sees its strengths and weaknesses. Every document unveiled this week will be a mix of the three Rs - retail offer, radicalism and reassurance.

It is getting the right balance between those three that gives politicians a headache.

Labour is already briefing that reassurance about the party's greatest perceived weakness - their seriousness about tackling the deficit - will feature on page one.

The prominence they're giving to their promise to be prudent is new. The detail which we have so far been told about is not.

So, today, I'll be looking to see what eye-catching, vote-attracting, focus-group tested pledges the party will add to its retail offer.

Much more importantly than the promises and the slogans, though, will be seeing whether Ed Miliband's manifesto paints a picture of the radical change he wants to produce in this country. He and his allies have always seen himself as being in the mould of an Attlee or a Thatcher.

If so, today's manifesto should tell us a lot more about what the next five years of a Miliband-led Britain could be like.

There's one final reason to plough your way through those manifestos. Look out for what they don't say and what they don't spell out. Mind the manifesto gaps.

Labour will stress that they will be careful with the public finances today but will they spell out any big spending cuts they'll make or point out that their looser borrowing rules could let them borrow tens of billions a year more than the Tories?

When the Conservatives tell you they will protect front line public services will they tell you who will pay for their as yet unfunded promise to spend more on the NHS or to cut welfare by £12bn?

What do you mean you're still not going to read them? I'll make you an offer - we'll do it for you but please send me that thriller when you're done with it.

PS: I'm taking another step back to reporting the election today after my recent operation to have a carcinoid tumour removed. I'm undergoing a course of chemotherapy so not yet ready to take to the campaign trail full time but I'll add an occasional broadcast - like the one you can see below - to my blogging. As you can hear here my voice has not yet recovered fully though I'm working hard with the help of a great medical team to get it back to full strength.

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Media captionBBC Political Editor Nick Robinson: Taking another step back to reporting

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