National Liberals and evidence-based policy: a reply to Jonathan Calder

by Stephen Tall on November 21, 2013

‘Whoever you vote for the political class gets in’ blogs Liberal England’s Jonathan Calder. It is, as ever from Jonathan, well worth reading.

The first half holds up to deserved ridicule Nick Boles’ suggestion that the Tories set up a National Liberal ‘holding bay’ for liberal conservatives who can’t bear to identify with the Tories.

But it’s the second half I want to focus on because it’s the bit where Jonathan responds to my argument about the policy overlap between Orange Bookers, Cameroons and Blairites. Here’s the bit of my argument Jonathan quotes criticising Nick Boles:

It’s a shame because there is an interesting speech to be made about the prospects for a National Liberal party, one which brings together the Orange Bookers, the Blairites and the Cameroons. There would be disagreements over civil liberties, but on the economy, public services, the environment and Europe they would have more in common with each other than with their current parties. Tribal loyalties, combined with our stultifying electoral system which inhibits new parties, means such an alliance is unlikely to come to pass.

And here’s Jonathan’s critique of this:

To which I say is thank goodness for tribal loyalties.

Because this natural seeming confluence between large parts of the three main parties is based less on shared ideology than on a shared social background.

These days mainstream politicians are overwhelmingly likely to come from the same wealthy middle-class families, to have been to the same limited range of schools and universities, to have worked as special advisers (and perhaps in a more lucrative career and then to have been selected to fight winnable seats.

The are all light on ideology and tend to buy in their policies from charities and think tanks. Their shared enthusiasm for “evidence-based policy” disguises a tacit, unexamined agreement about the nature of the problems we face. Where is the evidence-based policy for reducing income inequality, for instance?

There are some fair points in here but I think they need unpicking:

Shared ideology or shared background? 

It’s probably my fault for using three labels as short-hand all of which have a lot of baggage attached: ‘Orange Bookers’, ‘Cameroons’ and ‘Blairites’. Some of that baggage is justified, some of it not.

The negative version (which is, I think, the one Jonathan has in mind) looks at the groups and sees an affluent, SW1-centric, sharp-suited, careerist mélange of privileged, Oxbridge SpAds utterly detached from the real world.

The positive version (and what  I intended it to mean) recognises there is a liberal diaspora represented within the three main parties which believes in a mixed economy, is open to private/public sector delivery of key services if it increases individual choice, and is pro-European (but wants EU reform where it tends to protectionism) and pro-green (usually through market mechanisms, including taxing pollution).

In fact, the kind of liberal agenda I set out here. The kind of liberal ideas that would find favour among Labour and Tory politicians from varied social backgrounds like (to name but a few) Ken Clarke, Alan Milburn, Anna Soubry, Alan Johnson and  Tessa Jowell – as well as, yes, David Laws, Jeremy Browne and many other Lib Dems.

What’s the opposite of evidence-based policy?

Where I definitely part company with Jonathan is in his cynicism about evidence-based policy. Of course, all sorts of people claim their policies are evidence-based and do so from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum – that in itself is enough for some to write it off and say, “We need only be guided by our values.”

The problem is values aren’t enough on their own if the outcomes they produce are the reverse of what we intended. The point of evidence-based policy is to enable us to work out how most effectively to apply our own values.

There are numerous examples of programmes with laudable aims – for example, the Scared Straight youth offender prevention programme which unfortunately led to higher offending rates; or the Californian programme to reduce class sizes in schools which failed to improve children’s reading – which failed despite the best intentions.

And of course evidence-based policy is very much a liberal idea. Not just because it appeals to the rational sceptical approach to being told you should do something by responding “Show me the evidence why” – though that is a good thing. But also because randomised control trials (one of the core parts of evidence-based policy alongside process and qualitative evaluations) literally are a liberal idea: they’re founded on father-of-liberalism John Stuart Mill’s ‘method of difference’ through which the observed difference between two groups can be measured to identify the ‘active ingredient’ which works.

As for Jonathan’s challenge, “Where is the evidence-based policy for reducing income inequality, for instance?” Well, there are plenty of organisations around undertaking just that kind of research… Those I know about include: finding out what works best in back-to-work programmes (like this one, published today) or closing the attainment gap for children from low-income backgrounds (as the charity I work for does) or how effective the Education Maintenance Allowance was in helping young people stay on in school or college post-16 (the IFS looked at it here) or how best to promote local growth (which these folk will do).