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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.