Giving think tanks a direct policy role is good for democracy

Excluding think tanks of left, right or centre from the policy process is undemocratic as well as impossibly naïve.

 

Alan White is worried by the notion of some policy-making being “outsourced” to think tanks. He shouldn’t be.

Fourth on his target list is my Centre for Crime Prevention. Founded in January, it’s certainly a fledgling organisation whose strong media impact may just possibly be down to strong and newsworthy reports - because I can assure him it isn’t owed to big corporate donors or a large staff.

It isn’t immediately obvious why a report saying something true and interesting should be ignored because it has a single author, and I’m grateful that the press seems to agree. But if the Centre grows to the point of attracting those big corporate donors, I’d no doubt face lots of sneer quotes about how dubious that relationship is (for which see White’s examples 1-3). Perhaps think tanks cannot win?

In fact, White shouldn’t worry on either front. Many think tanks do pay the bills because of wealthy donors like Lord Sainsbury, certain trade unions and some companies. But pay-for-print think tanks soon collapse financially for the simple reason that the credibility of their reports depends on the perception and reality of independence. Big companies are perfectly capable of producing corporate brochures without external help.

In theory anyone can publish a report, but if their figures aren’t demonstrably correct and referenced they’ll be ignored even by “three hacks on minimum wage and a couple of kids on work experience”, let alone by policy makers.

There is controversy in any attempt to derive policy from data, but this is inherent to policy-making rather than a problem created by think tanks.

So for example White sees vulnerability in women criminals and clearly believes our prisons include lots of “women offenders who posed no risk to the public”. By contrast, I look at MOJ data showing 11,531 women with 15 or more previous convictions or cautions went before the courts after committing a serious (indictable) offence in the year ending September 2012. I think of their tens of thousands of victims and compare that to a female prison population of less than 4,000 (which includes prisoners from previous years). I think too of White’s excellent book, and its account of “women who’ll take a thirteen-year-old girl over to an estate in order to be gang raped, because that girl’s said something she shouldn’t”. All this leads me to conclude that sending (even) fewer serious, repeat women criminals to prison might harm the interests of the vulnerable.

There’s an argument to be had, then, and it’s inherently political. Given such policy debates must take place in Whitehall, it may just help to turn to those who came up with the policy ideas in the first place.

There’s a serious democratic point to make that governments are elected on a particular platform and agenda, and voters have a right to elect or reject them on that basis. Excluding think tanks of left, right or centre from the policy process in pursuit of agenda-free policy-making is therefore undemocratic as well as impossibly naïve.

White is plainly against scaling back community sentences for serious, repeat offenders and building more private prisons. Likewise, many would disagree with his policy ideas. But stopping governments pursuing particular policies is what elections are for. Long may that remain the case.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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