What next for evidence-based political debate?

Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University

This is the first in a series of blogs reflecting on the UK General Election 2017 under the theme of ‘What next….?’  These blogs will focus on public policy, parties and the constitution.  This important opening blog reflects on evidence-based political debate.

The last three months – and three years – have been a policy fantasy. Utopian claims and dystopian allegations are everywhere. Project Fear and La La Land have become the abiding metaphors. Referendums encourage that. Each side in an artificially dichotomous battle has to claim supreme virtue, and that the other side will lead us uniquely to perdition. But the 2017 general election to the UK parliament took this ignoring of evidence to new depths.

The UK manifestoes of the Conservative and Labour parties were quite remarkable in their refusal to engage with counter arguments. The Conservative one was probably, on balance, the worse of the two, failing even to offer an attempt at costing the plans. In the polite words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘compared to a typical Budget their manifesto is extremely light on tax and spending proposals’. We were expected to trust them to continue on the path which they were already on. That – in the chaotic outcome of the election – gives us no empirical guide at all.

The Conservatives failed even to understand the implications of their own proposals for social policy, most spectacularly over paying the cost of care for old people. They could not estimate how the proposed changes would affect different income groups, nor how it would relate to medical care. So far as it was possible to judge, the policy would actually have been redistributive (from wealthy to poor) and would not have cost anyone anything more for medical care. But if the resulting mess could nevertheless be labelled the ‘dementia tax’ they had only themselves to blame for their empirical ineptitude.

Labour’s attempt at invoking evidence was a nod in the direction of credibility, but was so ignorant about the ways in which the fiscal system works as to show a disturbing distance from economic reality. Concentrating their entire revenue-raising proposals on the top 2% of earners and on corporation tax ignored abundant evidence about the cleverness of perfectly legal tax avoidance and – more worryingly – the job-destroying potential of changes in business taxes. The party’s rhetorical claim to be for ‘the many not the few’ sat rather uneasily with the massively regressive implications of abolishing university tuition fees in England, and with the almost complete silence on the Conservative government’s freezing of benefits for people in work.

The IFS verdict on these two is a summing up also of their disconnection from reality: ‘the shame of the two big parties’ manifestos is that neither sets out an honest set of choices’.

The SNP and the Liberal Democrats seemed on the surface to pay more attention to evidence. The Liberal Democrats took costing more seriously than either Labour or the Tories, and notably unlike Labour proposed to end large parts of the freeze of benefits. But even here the attention to evidence often took second place to easy point-scoring (such as in objections to fracking and the obscurity of how they would actually get out of their infamous hole on student fees).

Watching Nicola Sturgeon being interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC, one could not help being impressed by her attention to detail, in sharp contrast to the UK party leaders (May, Corbyn, Farron and Nuttall) who waffled vacuously. And the SNP could not escape evidence because they have been in government for ten years, with not very impressive results in education, health, transport and the economy. But lying in the background of every SNP pronouncement this time was the massive gap of evidence relating to independence. The party implicitly recognised this by setting up a commission on the financial basis of independence, chaired by their former MSP Andrew Wilson. But they thought they had several years to work on this, and so they still had nothing to offer to the 2017 debate. That utopian absence, and the mediocre record in government, presented a ready target for the Scottish Conservatives, who thus achieved a rare unambiguous triumph on 8th June.

The overall retreat of the British political system from evidence was summed up in two quotations the day after. One was Theresa May’s announcing ‘a government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country’, a claim so obviously at variance with her minority position as to lead many commentators to doubt if she was fully in touch with reality. The other meaningless claim was Jeremy Corbyn’s: ‘people voted for hope’. No doubt, but neither hope nor specious ‘certainty’ will get Britain through the extraordinarily difficult reality that lies ahead.

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