A Labour government in 2015: what role for evidence?

In the first in a series of blogs David Walker, the Academy of Social Sciences’ Head of Policy, asks how could Labour’s strong record on evidence translate if 2015 results in a Labour government? He argues that there are positive indicators but Ed Miliband’s government will need to be lobbied if we want them to think seriously about the role of evidence in government.

A strong record on evidence

The party’s pedigree is strong. Labour’s record on evidence takes in Harold Wilson’s creation of the Social Science Research Council and Jim Callaghan’s massive effort collecting data for his community development project. Early Blair saw big investment in evidence at the centre of Whitehall – apotheosis of our own dear Geoff Mulgan — the Social Exclusion Unit and the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.

Electoral uncertainty abounds, but it’s plausible that Labour could form the next UK government in some parliamentary configuration: let’s make all necessary caveats about the existence of the UK after September 18th. Labour hasn’t thought about evidence in any generic sense, that’s too abstract and not what oppositions do. But we can make some observations and inferences about a Miliband administration and – political circumstances permitting – they are relatively favourable.

Favourable circumstances for evidence: institutional handover & leadership personalities

First, institutional holdover. The Office of Budget Responsibility, the UK Statistics Authority and other bastions of objectivity and accuracy will go on. Second, personalities. As energy secretary in Gordon Brown’s government, Miliband was highly evidence conscious. His wonkish style and the presence in his entourage of such heavyweights as Lord Stewart Wood suggest strong awareness of method and analysis. That he is comfortable in the company of academics is not something you would say about David Cameron, but is no guarantee his policy choices would be any less inflected by political necessity or partisan beliefs.

Will it be analysis and/or data?

Given the backgrounds of Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves and others, social science would be a presiding spirit in a Miliband cabinet; that ought to mean a certain friendliness towards analysis if not necessarily, in the case of the economists, empirical evidence. The historian, Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, adds to a sense that, by background, this lot would find it hard to pay the data some respect. Liam Byrne, the science and universities shadow, has made heroic commitments on the status of innovation and even promised to create a Whitehall position of ‘chief social scientist’.

Young guns, advocates for evidence?

On Labour’s front bench sit a number of political professionals. Young guns who make it to winnable seats are often criticised for having done nothing outside politics, as if having run, say, a bank had some superior utility. Yet if you scrutinise their biographies, a fair few either worked in the voluntary sector or for thinktanks. These days the occupations have in common an intense awareness of the need to register ‘impact’, in order to secure funding – the former Labour special adviser Dan Corry is nowadays a stout advocate of evidence and effectiveness as head of the charity NPC.

Evidence vs. political context

Let’s not be naïve. The next government could be overwhelmed by constitutional, fiscal and parliamentary crisis and struggle to survive, evidence or no evidence. The pressures of governing in a culture that often prefers nostrums to knowledge won’t abate. Say Sadiq Khan became Justice Minister. Unless the next Labour government really is going to be different from predecessors, his decisions about prison numbers are likely to be conditioned by the Daily Mail, which has in the past meant paying very little attention to any causal modelling or the connection (complex and non linear) between imprisonment and offending.

Evidence in government – lobbying needed

Blind faith has guided past Labour cabinets, Blair’s and Brown’s included. Assessing the dogma-to-reason ratio for successive governments including Cameron’s coalition, would make a neat if normative study. What’s relevant now is whether an Ed Miliband government would cumulate and continue recent efforts such as the What Works centres. The truth is his shadows haven’t given such a detailed question any thought, but might if pushed and lobbied during the next few months.


David Walker is Head of Policy at the Academy of Social Sciences; these are his personal views. With Polly Toynbee he wrote ‘The Verdict, did Labour change Britain?’ and their new book ‘Cameron’s Coup’ will be published in the spring.


This is the first in a series of blogs in which authors will talking about possible role of evidence in the next British government.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. To learn more about the Alliance and join us (it’s free and open to all) click here.