Following the evidence: why it’s plain wrong to describe the SMF as ‘left-of-centre’

This week was panning out to be a fairly typical one in my job managing the SMF’s external affairs. I expected debates on the merits of the contributory principle in the welfare system, some fallout from our critique of the government’s impending probation reforms – at worst a row about whose turn it is to sort the office post.

I certainly didn’t expect to be debating with another think tank – the Centre for Policy Studies – whether SMF is ‘left of centre’ or not. CPS says we are and that the BBC should say so too.

The evidence – because surely that’s why we’re all here, to follow evidence – does nothing to back up CPS.

We have a board and a policy advisory board with members of mixed political affiliation. Our staff team is the same, both past (previous Directors include Danny Finkelstein and Phil Collins) and present.

Plus both of our incoming and outgoing Directors – Emran Mian and Ian Mulheirn –  and our Chair, Mary Ann Sieghart, are stalwart non-partisans.

And the policies we promote? You tell me if Facebook welfare is right-wing or left-wing. Or if our proposal for a funded fiscal stimulus is of the left or of the right.

We gently told CPS all of this. On Twitter they said that Wikipedia says we’re left of centre – the same entry that refers to us as ‘John Major’s favourite think tank’. Given that they – or anyone with editorial rights – could have changed Wikipedia to say that a moment earlier, we decided to press a little harder.

The next answer was that the ‘analysis’ of BBC ‘bias’ holds tight even if we’re excluded from it.

Congratulations, we said. So take us out.

But then we were told that such an edit wasn’t possible. Now, I’m used to relatively ancient think tank IT systems but this seems far-fetched even with decrepit versions of word processing software.

The real point we’re making – to be fully serious for a second – isn’t that we see ‘left of centre’ as some demon descriptor. Others are welcome to it and we’ll still talk to them, evidently.

The problem with the term is that it’s simply not accurate for us. If the BBC choose not to use it, then they’re sticking to the facts. We’ll give them no more credit than that.

As for CPS, with even a cursory engagement with the facts they would have established the same.

Especially on a significant issue of public debate – ie. public service broadcasting – think tanks owe a duty to to follow the evidence.

Or are CPS doing something slightly different than the normal work of a think tank? Without more evidence, I won’t stick any other name on them for now.


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