Collateral Damage: CentreForum & the Fall & Rise of Liberal Ideas

It is now clearly public knowledge that I have left my position as CEO of CentreForum, a job that I have undertaken these past three years with a great sense of privilege, pride and I hope some sense of humility.

We had planned before the general election for a downturn in our fortunes, planning that itself necessitated hard decisions, decisions that impacted on my staff, decisions that I did not take lightly. Like others, I did not foresee the magnitude of the Lib Dem reversal on May 7th. Its impact was both immediate and potentially transformational for CentreForum.

In trying to determine a rigorous response, the only principled way forward that I could discern to help to secure the future of the organisation going forward and the survival of the maximum number of it’s truly excellent staff in the short term, was to propose a more rigorous reorganisation than had originally been envisaged, and with it, my demise as Chief Executive.

I left CentreForum – I did not resign – with no rancour and with a great sense of pride at the end of May. I left in the firm knowledge that through my actions I had at least contributed positively to the achievement of my two principle short term objectives identified above.

More importantly, as a centre positioned voice for liberal ideas and the radical change in social justice and social mobility that only liberal thinking can deliver, I hope and believe that CentreForum played an important role these past five years.

When I arrived at CentreForum I was all too aware of the responsibility placed upon me. Midway through the Parliament, CentreForum was already achieving well beyond its resource base and had developed, under successive Directors, an enviable reputation – not least for its work on the pupil premium and economic renewal.
My vision was to try and build on these foundations, to try and create a truly liberal voice for new and transformational ideas that reflected liberal views across the broadest range of liberal thinking – a real, liberal, CentreForum.

I wanted though to go further. If the public policy ideas we were generating were rigorous and sound (and I was fastidious in quality control of our output), then very little could be achieved simply by publication. We needed to actively campaign publicly through the media and privately within Westminster across all parties, but particularly with the Liberal Democrats, to see practical policy prescription materially influence legislative and regulatory change.

I am proud of what we helped the Liberal Democrats to achieve in the last Parliament. Our deep commitment to a fair, controlled, yet liberal immigration policy spanned numerous papers, speeches and seminars and, I believe, contributed significantly to liberal democrat policy: our role in promoting greater investment in infrastructure (when others were calling for a reversal) helped to create a counterpoint for argument within the Treasury and outside, it subsequently became cross party policy: our work to transform social mobility not least for the youngest and the oldest in society has drawn considerable plaudits across party lines: and as Vince so graciously remarked at our conference reception last year, who would have thought a Tory Chancellor would have accepted into law, without amendment, liberal proposals for reform of IPO status and stamp duty (both CF generated ideas) as was achieved in 2014.

In all, CentreForum’s small but excellent staff team, supported by an eclectic cadre of equally excellent contributing authors from all wings of liberal thinking, produced 105 public policy reports over the life of the last Parliament; – 65 in my time as CEO.

I did not agree with the content of all of them – that is exactly as it should be if you are CEO of a liberal think tank. But I did insist that all were rigorously argued and methodologically sound – some would say too much so! We remained fiercely independent in our views and in our liberal stance (not least in our consistent opposition to trident), and I pay tribute to my trustees who never once interfered editorially with my decision to publish or campaign, even when they disagreed with me.

Three initiatives I am most proud of. Following a three year campaign to tackle the greatest barrier to social mobility in higher education, our postgraduate loans model was finally adopted by government at the last Autumn Statement. It is not perfect, but it does represent a huge step forward in addressing the lack of access that UK students currently enjoy to further tertiary education.

Similarly, the new school accountability regime, conceived and designed by CentreForum and placing the charted progress of every child at its heart, was campaigned for and won in the teeth of fierce coalition partner opposition. Adopted now in law, in time it will have a transformative effect on social mobility in our schools.
Finally, when few others were prepared to support us, our three year, organisation – wide commitment to reform of the public and Westminster understanding of the significance of mental health issues, represents all that I hope CentreForum will continue to be as it moves forward.

Ably Chaired by Paul Burstow, our Mental Health Commission’s push for parity of esteem between mental and physical health has been met by positive policy commitment across all political parties. Fully 70% of our mental health recommendations have been taken up as public policy. The coalition government responded to our calls to reduce mental health waiting times and reform the treatment of mental health during the early years (pdf) and in schools, and our recommendations around mental health crisis care, primary care and workplace wellbeing were reflected in NHS England’s Five Year Forward View (pdf).

I am indeed sad to leave a job I loved and a cause that post May 7th has never been more prescient. Others will judge, but I hope that I leave in the knowledge that to have acted otherwise in the position that we found ourselves in on May 8th, would have been unprincipled and illiberal.

We now need an independent, liberal, think tank committed to the protection of human rights and civil liberties, the promotion of pluralistic discussion and debate and the advancement of social justice, social mobility and tolerance, more than ever before. I hope that you will join with me in supporting CentreForum in being just that.

* Professor Stephen Lee was Chief Executive of CentreForum from 2012 – 2015. He is Professor of Non Profit Management at Cass Business School and a proud member of the Liberal Democratic Party

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6 Comments

  • David Faggiani 16th Jun '15 - 12:15pm

    Very interesting, Stephen, thanks for the insight. Good luck with your work in the future. I for one would be very happy to see regular posts by a representative of the Forum in the years ahead on LDV, by way of updates, or gathering feedback.

  • It’s interesting to learn that CF was responsible for proposing (1) Postgraduate Loans & (2) Mental Health parity.

    When Postgraduate Loans were announced in the budget, the sudden onset of common sense brought confusion & tears of joy. I didn’t know where the policy came from – nobody seemed to be saying it was a CF / Liberal / LibDem policy.

    These are just two extremely important issues, and something that CF should definitely be recognised for – I’m grateful for your contribution, and as a result CentreForum will have my support in future.

  • Bill le Breton 16th Jun '15 - 3:04pm

    Blue on Blue, perhaps?

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Jun '15 - 3:04pm

    Thanks for your article. You have got the tone spot on.

    I think combining centrism and liberalism is quite a good idea because it means you can be practical, whilst ensuring you don’t just run off to wherever the centre-ground moves to.

    I liked some of the stuff that Centre-Forum produced, but I disagreed quite strongly with some of it. I felt that a good Chartered Accountant working alongside an economist would produce better results than simply what looked like an economist having most of the say on tax policy. Maybe I am wrong, but some of the changes went quite strongly against international reporting standards and I felt an accountant would have been more hesitant about this and explained why the current tax laws were the way that they were.

    Best wishes for the future

  • Centre Forum is to be congratulated on the quality of its output throughout the last Parliament.

    As a Chartered Accountant, I have to agree with Eddie Sammon that input from Accountancy and Finance professionals can aid in developing tax policy. that is not only based on sound economic principles and empirical data, but is also implementable in practice.

    Last month;s report on Mansion tax was very good and I welcomed the conclusion, recommending that proposals for a Mansion Tax be dropped, in favour of the Government establishing a Royal Commission with the task of considering the appropriate balance of taxes on property, and the merits of moving partly or wholly to the
    taxation of economic rent on land as proposed by Henry George.

    Hayek, (whose economic philosophy has been attributed by Centre Forum as the influencing its research paradigm) credits Georgism with sparking his interest in economics. Hayek thought that the theory of Georgism was sound, but that assessment challenges could and would lead to unfair outcomes.

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