Policy Exchange: Past, present and future

The group once called "Cameron's favourite think-tank" celebrates its tenth anniversary today, and i

Policy Exchange was founded ten years ago. We believed -  and still do - that there is a role for the state, albeit a much smaller and more efficient one, to help improve peoples’ lives. We also felt that people should have more of a direct say on the decisions that affect themselves and their families.

Decentralisation was one of our key themes and some of our better known policy recommendations such as directly elected police commissioners and Free Schools stem from this initial premise. The first elections for police and crime commissioners will take place this November. We believe that a police chief who is directly accountable to the people he or she serves will improve not only the standard of policing at a local level but also re-establish trust in the police, something that has diminished recently with the recent phone hacking scandal.

We first put forward policy recommendations for the setting up of Free Schools because we believe that every parent should have access to a good, local school which offers their child the best possible education. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in the country. We want schools, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK, to have the means to attract the best possible teachers. That means challenging dated concepts such as national pay bargaining, which defines how much a teacher should earn based on time spent in the job, rather than ability. Head teachers know how good a teacher is and should be allowed to pay that person accordingly. Likewise if someone is not cut out to be a teacher, then he or she should not simply be moved from one school to the next as is currently the case. We need to reform the education system to attract the brightest and the best to help our children achieve their potential.

The pupil premium – an additional cash payment for the most disadvantaged children – is one idea that some people forget was first floated by Policy Exchange. The Liberal Democrats took the idea forward in their 2010 election manifesto and the policy came into being this year.

Our work on re-establishing the contributory principle in the welfare system has been taken forward by both Labour and Conservative politicians. The universal credit, set to be introduced in 2014, is a stepping stone to making it more worthwhile to work rather than remain on benefits. However, there is a huge amount more to be done to create a fairer welfare system. Recently we have proposed tougher sanctions and conditions on jobseekers who are not doing all they can to find work. At the same time, the government has a responsibility to help jobcentre advisers identify those people who are the least likely to be able to hold down a job due to alcohol or drug problems or a history of mental health problems. These people need the most help and we need to create a system where on day one of someone signing on, a Jobcentre adviser has the information to tailor specific help towards people with particular needs.

While a number of our policy recommendations have found their way into coalition thinking, we are still looking to the future. There is a huge challenge facing all political parties – how do you improve public services with no money. We will be publishing a number of reports over the coming months which specifically look to provide answers to this question.

How can you improve the effectiveness of the police when they are faced with 20 per cent budget cuts over the next three years? We think the police could deploy existing, fully trained officers more effectively rather than simply hire more staff – deployment is more important than employment. Private companies and civilian staff can play a role in delivering back office functions, such as manning call centres, freeing up time for officers to carry out more visible policing roles which is what the public is crying out for.

Energy bills are the biggest concern to most people around the country if you look at any of the opinion polls. We think the government could help energy companies reduce electricity bills by revising current climate change policy. We believe that global warming is happening and we believe that the UK has a responsibility to reduce its carbon emissions. But, current energy policy throws billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money on the deployment of specific, expensive technologies such as offshore wind. Government should spend more of its budget on financing innovation directly, rather than subsidising the mass roll out of expensive technologies.

Opening up public data is something that this government is committed to doing and we fully support this aim. Only this week we published a report calling on a right to open data. All non personal information held by government departments (maps and postcodes for example) should be made available for free. We think that entrepreneurs and civic activists could use this information to create new ‘Apple-like’ services and products. Free, open data could create billions of pounds for the economy.

As you can probably tell, there is plenty of work to do. We need to make sure that the modern day Policy Exchange rises to the challenge.

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.