Westminster is rarely a heartening place. Its pubs are too crowded, its conversations are too whispered, and its horizons are too close. But then something like the Centre for Social Justice Awards happens, as they did on Thursday night in the Royal Horticultural Halls, to make you whistle your way home. Really, it’s not all bad.
The CSJ’s director, Christian Guy, describes his think-tank as a bridge between politics and the world out there. Something similar could be said about the awards themselves. They were given to the sorts of organisations whose work generally goes unremarked in Westminster, unless you read about it in the pages of a CSJ report: the smaller charities and voluntary organisations that try, day by day, person by person, to improve the lot of the disadvantaged and disaffected. The winners ranged from a theatre group that helps young care-leavers to a charity that guides the poorest asylum seekers into British society. You can read about them all here.
I couldn’t pick out favourites from a field of such calibre, but several moments from the evening have stuck with me. There was the appreciative roar – Whoop! Whoop! – from the row of youngsters just behind me, when the Big House’s Maggie Norris went to collect her award. There was the video interview with a girl who had been smuggled into Britain in a fridge, and abused by various men along the way, before being found by Baca. And then there was Rachel, who used to start her day with a pint of vodka, but who was now on stage to testify to the work done by SASS. “Who’d have thought I’d be able to speak here today?”
The ceremony was held to honour people such as these, yet there was another occasion too: the tenth anniversary of the CSJ itself. You probably know the story already. The think-tank grew from seeds planted, but obscured by the muck, during Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership of the Conservative Party. With the founder of this very website, Tim Montgomerie, and then with people such as Philippa Stroud, IDS decided to continue his “project” outside of the Murderworld that is top-end Tory politics. The result, in November 2004, was the Centre for Social Justice.
Without wishing to get to too slushy about it, I can remember my own first CSJ moment. It was soon after I joined Reform, in 2006, when I read their “interim report on the state of the nation”, titled Breakdown Britain. Here was something that was new to me: a hundred-page think-tank study that contained testimony from (and photographs of) people actually dealing with the problems it described. This was the CSJ’s métier, what distinguished it from the rest. It showed itself again in the Breakthough Britain report that they published afterwards, and have since updated. It was there in Thursday night’s ceremony.
Another CSJ moment that I remember, in particular, was the publication of their report Dynamic Benefits in 2009. My then boss, Fraser Nelson, and I were called in for a briefing, and it was immediately apparent how significant that document could turn out to be – in fact, at the time, I called it “a report that should influence welfare policy for years to come”. But something else was striking: it was IDS who, along with Dr Stephen Brien, did the briefing. He’s never been just a figurehead for this think-tank.
It’s funny looking back on that report nowadays. Here was a policy called “Universal Credit” being advocated by someone who wasn’t even part of the Tories’ shadow frontbench, and that was resisted by George Osborne over concerns about cost. Yet, only a month later, the report’s insights were borrowed by David Cameron for his finest conference speech as party leader. And now, of course, Universal Credit is being introduced by IDS as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It is, we all know, a troubled policy – but, as I’ve argued before, that doesn’t make it any less crucial.
IDS’s elevation is, in many ways, the CSJ’s. From the Universal Credit to tackling modern slavery to measuring “social value”, their work now inflects whole sections of the Government’s policy agenda. And, increasingly, it’s former CSJ staff who are called on to implement it. There’s a case that they have been the most influential think-tank of this Parliament. They are certainly the most necessary: a corrective to the persistent idea that the Tories are a party of, for and by the rich.
What next? One challenge that the CSJ might face in 2015 is a change of government. They will surely influence any Tory Party that emerges from the next election, but could they do the same for a Labour administration too? Their work is non-partisan, and much of emerges from their conversations with those in the charitable sector, so it should retain its potency. But the question remains whether Miliband & Co. will be able to see beyond the associations with IDS.
A second challenge is that of implementation. The CSJ cannot be blamed for Universal Credit’s difficult progress through Whitehall’s computer systems. No siree, that’s government’s fault. But there may be something in the idea of think-tanks working more closely with civil servants, or former civil servants, as they develop their ideas. The Dynamic Benefits report could barely have been more detailed, so I only mean this as a general point. It’s just that think-tanks do want to have their polices put into practice.
But let’s end on a less prosaic note. Thursday night’s ceremony featured poetry by Karl Lokko, a former Brixton gang leader. What did he put his redemption down to? One word kept reappearing in his verse: “Love”. This isn’t sentimental love, or uncomplicated love. It’s the love shown by thousands of charities and volunteers and families to those in their care. The CSJ realises that this is what really makes a difference. After all, they’ve been preaching this same creed for ten years now: it’s the people that count.