Progressing with evidence-based politics

The Liberal Democrats are the party of evidence-based politics. We form our policies not based on blindly-followed ideology, but by proposing workable solutions to society’s problems. In my view this is what makes our party great. With this in mind, I broadly welcome our approach to the public versus private sector debate, which I’ll address in the latter part of this post.

However, Conference’s vote to approve fracking in Scotland is concerning in comparison to the party’s renewed opposition in England. I welcome this opposition for two pragmatic reasons.  Firstly, there are serious short-terms risks to fracking, such as water pollution. This is a serious risk, because the private companies which frack love to cut corners, as has been seen in the US. Until such time as there is fracking regulation with real teeth, supporting fracking is a massive.  Simon Oliver recently wrote an excellent explanation of findings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh report here on Lib Dem Voice.  Basically, fracking could be done well in the UK, but won’t be due to the weakening of regulations. Selective citation of the report in the Scottish debate seemed to use the evidence to justify a response, not having a response based on the available evidence. That isn’t how our party debates should work.

Secondly, there’s the environmental impact, as highlighted by Willie Rennie. The burning of natural gases provided by fracking leads to global warming. It kicks the problem of environmental damage into the long grass. It leaves my generation and the next to pick up the pieces. Short-term gain for long-term pain.

That is why Willie Rennie’s is a strong, pragmatic response. This contrasts with the Tories’ commitment to short-changing the next generation.

Now on to the public versus private sector debate. During the Labour leadership election Jeremy Corbyn described his ideological commitment to public sector ownership. Corbyn’s approach has a lot to do with ideology and little to do with pragmatism. It’s a shame. There’s a decent case for more public ownership of railways, if made pragmatically. Just look at East Coast before it was sold off. That was a profit-making, state-owned railway operator delivering for its customers.

We Lib Dems tend to be pragmatic on privatisation too. If we look at the selling off of Royal Mail, it was a policy supported by Vince Cable and the coalition team based on the evidence available. It provided the opportunity for an affordable investment for British people.

A few months ago I suggested here on LDV that privatising elements of the NHS could work in certain scenarios. The issue is that, as with fracking, it has to be done well and done pragmatically. When we look at our NHS does the wasting of time and energy on this really this make it worthwhile?

I really hope we members continue to scrutinise the evidence carefully when making policy. The future of our party and of liberalism lies in our hands.

* A Liberal in Leeds is the pseudonym for a Lib Dem member. His identity is known to the LDV team.

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  • Peter Watson 21st Mar '16 - 12:36pm

    There is a risk that “evidence-based” politics becomes “wait-and-see” politics: let other countries and parties lead, wait to see what the outcome is, and then make a decision afterwards based on that evidence.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Mar '16 - 1:06pm

    The real problem we have is that the evidence base has been loaded by Osborne in favour of the companies by restricting the length of time that applications are considered .Any major application regardless of type needs supporting evidence ,detailed reports and viable and defendable conditions .The chancellor through his meddling with the planning system has pulled that rug from under our feet .Until and unless that balance is restored we should oppose fracking or similar projects .Our first duty is to our communities to ensure fair play and even handedness this cannot be delivered when you have a chancellor who is playing fast and loose with the planning system.

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Mar '16 - 1:54pm

    A party needs more than pragmatism and the latest buzz-words.

    It needs principles and a philosophy. It has one. It’s called Liberalism.

  • I don’t think it’s possible for *all* policies to be *purely* evidence-based, just as much I don’t think it’s right or proper for *all* policies to be based on ideology. At the end, it become a dogma, and dogma is bad. There will always be a case for some public ownership of certain things and private ownership of other things, yes. The is no right or wrong answer at the end and I suspect that many of these things are down to value judgements. I went to the Lib Dem spring conference in York and attended the fracking debate. In the end I was not swayed by evidence either way. I decided it was absurd for me to try to evaulate it sensibly. I voted against fracking because of a value judgement based on risk aversity. I might have made an inappropriate judgement. However, I also voted against it for the simple reason that I think it’s a silly idea, whether it’s risky or not to our geology or contamination to the ground water, simply to pumping large quantities of water into the ground in order to extract hydrocarbons.

    Water is a valuable resource. It doesn’t just fall out of the sky, you know. Well, it does, but you know what I mean. Regardless of whether there is actually enough water lying around for us to use willy-nilly for such purposes, I’m not comfortable with it and I used that as the basis of my judgement call on fracking. Sod the ideology and sod the evidence – we could argue all night long about it and get nowhere and I don’t wish to be using either in a totally dogmatic fashion. I’ll happily stand up and say “sometimes I make judgement calls based on values” without feeling it’s something to be apologised for.

  • Peter Watson 21st Mar '16 - 2:14pm

    @Helen Tedcastle “It’s called Liberalism.”
    One thing I’ve learnt from visiting this site over the past few years is that there is a lack of consensus about what “liberalism” means. On a given policy or issue, it is rarely clear which is the obvious “liberal” or “Lib Dem” position. Even “centre” seems a vacuous term with people arguing from a little to the left or a little to the right of each other but still claiming to be centrist.
    “Evidence-based politics” also appears to be a triumph of hope over experience. In politics and economics, is the evidence ever sufficiently unambiguous to make one position inarguably “correct”?

  • Peter Watson 21st Mar '16 - 2:16pm

    At the risk of rubbing salt in the wounds, I would suggest that having ignored opinion polls and elections after 2010, the Liberal Democrats are not the party of evidence-based politics.

  • If you approve of evidence-based politics then you should see the rejoindre to the gasland link you posted, called fracknation here:

    You should also not that during the previous moratorium both the royal society and the royal academy of engineering gave a thumbs up to fracking. In other words all the evidence is pro-fracking. All the rest is puerile propaganda. Also notice that the consensus opinion is that emissions in the US have been dropping largely to the displacement of coal power by gas power such that they met Kyoto without even having signed it. Lastly, when I was your age I was also very pro-alternative energy and now I am even involved in nuclear fusion. However, at no stage did I imagine we’d be stupid enough to switch off out current energy supplies before the alternatives were ready to take over.

    Remember there are two sides to every story….that used to be the Liberal voice!

  • Evidence based policies mean nothing unless they’re based on value based principles.

  • A Liberal in Leeds 21st Mar '16 - 11:35pm

    @Peter – I accept that it’s a risk, but that doesn’t excuse blindly following ideology above evidence.

    @Neil – So we need to challenge the Tory ideology & agenda in response. The Tories deregulated banking in 1997. Look where that got us.

    @Michael, @Helen, @David Ideas and pragmatism then. Together. Balanced and complimenting one another.

    @James you seem to be accusing me of ignoring evidence. I oppose fracking on environmental and practical grounds. You say “there are two sides to every story” and yet “all the evidence is pro-fracking. All the rest is puerile propaganda.”. I see we’ll have to agree to disagree on this issue!

    @Peter re coalition. I don’t agree with every individual coalition policy. But as Lib Dems ours are often evidence-based policies. Just look at the Pupil Premium now frozen by Tories. £2.5bn funding for poorer students to eventually shrink inequality gap. Helped to reduce the gap in attainment between working and middle class kids.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Mar '16 - 1:37am


    Yes , but Thomas is doing far more than decrying principle and he rarely uses buzz words and to imply it would be patronising , as he is a sharp thnker.

    Thank goodness we are , as Liberals and , yes indeed , Liberal Democrats, not all of one view , not all left or right or centre , not over all or on specific issues !Diversity is about people , who they are , and what they think !

    Yes on values , but do not assume that sharing values means having very similar policy preferences !

  • Peter Watson 22nd Mar '16 - 9:30am

    “But as Lib Dems ours are often evidence-based policies. Just look at the Pupil Premium now frozen by Tories.”
    In 2010, the Conservatives and Labour had a “pupil premium” in their manifestos. Universal free school meals could be considered an evidence-based policy insofar as it was a response to a report on its success in trial areas. Lib Dems opposed the trials that the Labour government commissioned to generate that evidence, and in attempting to claim the policy for Lib Dems, Nick Clegg ignored evidence that there were better ways to invest 500 million pounds in education. I don’t think that Lib Dems can claim to be the party of evidence-based politics.

    All political parties (and their members) are shaped by principles and dogma, and these form the prism through which evidence is viewed, selected and interpreted. This also allows a more consistent approach to social and economic policy, since the evidence is influenced by many measurable and unmeasurable complex factors which change over time, so is rarely (never?) conclusive. Which might be just as well, or political parties would be redundant! 😉

  • Neil Sandison 22nd Mar '16 - 10:59am

    A Liberal in Leeds .Agree with you perhaps we can find a parliamentarian MP or Lord I am not fussed who can arrange a debate on evidence passed planning and challenge the chancellors meddling .

  • A Liberal in Leeds 22nd Mar '16 - 5:25pm

    @Lorenzo Thanks 🙂

  • A Liberal in Leeds 22nd Mar '16 - 5:29pm

    @Peter “all parties shaped by dogma” – to an extent, but ours less than most. ‘We want to find liberal solutions to inequality’ = principle —> pupil premium = practical.

    Look at the Chancellor’s negative stance on capital infrastructure investment. Shaped by ideological obsession with small state, not evidence on what’s best for jobs and growth (according to IFS I believe).

  • A Liberal in Leeds 22nd Mar '16 - 5:53pm

    @Peter “In 2010, the Conservatives and Labour had a “pupil premium” in their manifestos” – So just to clarify Peter, did both parties commit £2.5 billion of funding specifically to help poorest students?

  • Simon Banks 22nd Mar '16 - 9:32pm

    A Liberal in Leeds has set out the right broad approach. There are good ideological reasons why some services should be free for users and practical reasons why, in some cases, these services are best delivered by the public sector directly rather than through the private or – people are forgetting – the voluntary sector. There is misplaced ideology on both sides of the traditional argument: for example, rail users got a bad deal at the sell-off of British Rail thanks to Tory privatising ideology but a good business(wo)man charged with protecting the public and consumers’ interests in the sell-off could have got a better deal. The Blair government and now this Tory government aggressively promoted PFI deals even when they were clearly bad deals – though I’m not sure that this is always ideology rather than cronyism with big business.

    We have ideology all right, but it’s an ideology of personal freedom, personal and community empowerment and equality, not of public good, private bad or the other way around.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Mar '16 - 10:18pm

    @A Liberal in Leeds “So just to clarify Peter, did both parties commit £2.5 billion of funding specifically to help poorest students?”
    No, perhaps wisely, both avoided quantifying the cost of their pupil premium. The Conservatives said, “we will introduce a pupil premium – extra funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” while Labour said, “we will introduce a local pupil premium to guarantee that extra funding to take account of deprivation follows the pupil.”. The Lib Dems said, “We will invest £2.5 billion in this ‘Pupil Premium’ to boost education opportunities for every child. This is additional money going into the schools budget”.
    To avoid straying too far off-topic and away from the claim that Lib Dems are “the party of evidence-based politics”, did the evidence in 2010 show that £2.5 billion was the right amount of “additional money”? Does the evidence in 2016 show that Lib Dems delivered £2.5 billion “additional money” without taking it from elsewhere in the schools budget?

  • A Liberal in Leeds 23rd Mar '16 - 1:44pm

    @Peter – can’t agree there. Pupil Premium has helped reduce the class gap in education equality.

    @Simon – I agree completely.

  • Peter Watson 23rd Mar '16 - 2:19pm

    @A Liberal in Leeds “@Peter – can’t agree there.”
    Can’t agree with what?
    You raised Pupil Premium in the context of the Lib Dems being “the party of evidence-based politics”. I offer no opinion about the pupil premium per se, but I question its relevance in supporting your implication that “evidence-based politics” is some sort of unique-selling point for Lib Dems. I don’t have the impression that this party is any better or worse than other major parties when it comes to making decisions based upon evidence.

  • A Liberal in Leeds 23rd Mar '16 - 10:52pm


    Right, okay. Examples in article, but worried about lack of evidence behind some Lab & Tory policies. For example – Tories: Right to Buy expansion, welfare cuts to pay for inheritance tax cuts etc. Labour: obsession with renationalising, oh wait they don’t have any policies ATM do they? 😉

  • Peter Watson 24th Mar '16 - 12:12am

    @A Liberal in Leeds “Examples in article”
    On fracking, Scottish members looked at the evidence and came to one conclusion, English members looked at the evidence and came to a different one. Which was also different to the one that Lib Dems had come to over the last five years despite the only significant new evidence apparently being that fracking could be safe. Consequently Lib Dems have voted to use imported gas instead of domestically produced gas, opposing fracking because of global warming while pushing for the Scottish oil and gas industry to be supported in spite of global warming, and opinions on nuclear power are unclear (does global warming trump safety concerns or not?). I’m not aware of any Damascene conversions in the light of new evidence, and comments on Lib Dem Voice suggest that individuals were consistent with previously held positions, i.e. some greens on the left opposed fracking and some oranges on the right supported it. It could be argued (and probably was) that a “pragmatic” and “evidence-based approach” to fracking is the one that Lib Dems presented to the electorate a few months ago.
    Evidence is vital, but ultimately it is incomplete, contradictory, complex, etc. The values and principles of an individual or political party are what determine how that evidence is used and can ensure consistency. The debate over fracking shows that different priorities, e.g. the risk of global warming versus the risk of depending on imported energy, mean that intelligent and well-meaning liberals can draw different conclusions from the same evidence.

  • Peter Watson 24th Mar '16 - 12:59am

    @A Liberal in Leeds “Tories: Right to Buy expansion, welfare cuts to pay for inheritance tax cuts etc. Labour: obsession with renationalising”
    Tories will point to evidence that home ownership is good, welfare cuts are popular with those not on the receiving end and encourage people to find work, that inheritance tax cuts promotes aspiration, etc. Labour will point to evidence that state ownership is good (to the extent that much successful “private” industry in the UK is owned by foreign states). Both will ignore, downplay or explain away evidence that does not match their world view. But Lib Dems look no different (though perhaps risk appearing less consistent or coherent).
    Coming from a scientific and engineering background, it is the lack of an obvious “correct” evidence-based way forward that frustrates me most about politics and economics. Even your article, which seems to say “I am a rational person, these are policies I agree with, therefore they are rational” reflects more of an idealistic / ideological / loyalist viewpoint than the pragmatic evidence-based one that it purports to. I don’t particularly disagree with your views on individual policies (well, may be a little bit!), but it is more the implication that these are evidence-based and pragmatic so the alternatives must simply be wrong and unrealistic. Being centrist does not guarantee this, and politicians to the left and the right will make exactly the same claims. The world is much less black-and-white than that.
    I believe that Lib Dems need to offer a clear, coherent and consistent set of policies, bound together by an understandable philosophy and identifiable priorities (e.g. some sort of pre-amble scorecard). This could make it easier to find a default position when the evidence is absent or contradictory, and if it produces polices which are not pragmatic or which are contradicted by all of the evidence, then there’s probably something fundamentally wrong at the heart of the party. Sadly, at the moment, in the Lib Dems I see a lack of consistency and a lack of unity, and “pragmatism” does not sound like the inspirational clarion call the party needs!

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