Sam Packer is the Media Campaign Manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance
The new Conservative government cannot hope to deliver on radical reforms if the state is dominated by left-wingers. Quangos have become a part of the political realm. While some of us argue that they remove responsibility and accountability from the politicians who taxpayers elect, they are an established part of public life – and a truly seismic cull seems improbable.
Their importance means that any government that wants to deliver major changes will need quangos that are not either directly oppositional or pursuing their own independent agenda. This does not mean lick-spittles that nod along with whatever the government calls for, which is surely the worst of all worlds, but it probably does mean fewer left-wing activists serving on government committees.
Yet today’s release from the TaxPayers’ Alliance reveals that despite ten years of Conservative-led government and Boris Johnson’s recent landslide victory, left-wingers continue to dominate quangos. In 2018-19, just 31.6 per cent of quangocrats declaring political activity were Conservative supporters. The significance of appointments is reflected in a statistical comparison of the Major, Blair and recent Conservative governments.
As ConHome’s ‘Calling All Conservatives’ feature notes, in the final year of the Major government, 57 per cent of appointees were Tories, a reasonable proportion given their status as a majority government. Blair, one of the most constitutionally transformative prime ministers, managed to completely change the ideological make-up of appointees. Within a year of his arrival at Number 10, Labour supporters made up 75 per cent of appointees and Conservatives just 13 per cent. This trend continued throughout Labour’s time in office, with the final year featuring 70 per cent Labour and 16 per cent Conservative appointees.
By contrast, the Conservatives of the 2010s have been dealing with consistent opposition from public bodies. In all bar two years, declared Labour appointees have outnumbered Conservatives, often by large margins. In 2018-19, less than a third of quangocrats appointed or reappointed were Tories. The significance of electoral victory is doubtless reduced when government-funded public health bodies, policy advisors, arts groups, national parks committees and many more still have socialists predominating. When the head of the Lake District National Park is complaining about a lack of diversity or Corbynite socialist campaigners like Toynbee Hall’s Sian Williams are sitting on the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum, it is apparent that the political leanings of quangocrats matter.
This is not to say that the Blair method of installing ideological bedfellows at every level is the way forward. But given that quango roles are government roles, it would be reasonable if their make-up came closer to reflecting public attitudes. The constant refrain from commentators, ranging from journalists to Dominic Cummings to Labour leadership candidates, is that the Brexit referendum and General Election results reflect a general frustration with the SW1-bubble consensus that predominates among senior people in nearly every aspect of public life. Our polling last year, conducted by this site’s own James Frayne, showed strong support, (especially among working-class voters) for policies on international aid, the BBC licence fee, and tax cuts, that would be anathema to the typical luvvie. Altering the make-up of quangos to ensure more voices are challenging the liberal-left consensus would be a simple but significant way to address the problem of ordinary people being underrepresented. At present, far too many quangos are controlled and almost wholly staffed by the sort of people who look at election results, scoff, and get back to telling taxpayers what is good for them.
This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a drive to make appointees more representative. Things like the 2019 Public Appointments Diversity Action Plan have championed diversity of “identity,” whether it be race, gender or class. But they have meant that the actual reason for diversity – a variety of perspectives – has been ignored. Diversity of opinion and thought have been consistently undervalued, despite actually being the most important of all. Those sitting on quangos would be both a more accurate reflection of the country, and probably substantially less left-wing, if these plans focused on people’s beliefs and views rather than who they are. The elite bubble would be far more likely to have a few holes in it. Sir Roger Scruton stood out as a rare example of a thoughtful Conservative appointment, before he was shamefully forced out of a role which actually hugely benefited from the different perspective he offered.
The views of the quango-bubble are reinforced by the fact they all come from the same place. Our research shows a strong bias in favour of the south, over the north, on English and Welsh quangos, with over 40 percent of quangocrats declaring the south as the location of their primary residence. For all the talk of empowering the north, having seven times more quangocrats from the south-east than north-east is hardly a positive sign. This lack of geographic variety is another way in which potentially varying opinions get no seat at the committee tables. If politics really is going to become less London-centric, as the government has promised in its early days, then it would make sense for quangos to more accurately reflect Britain’s remarkable regional diversity. It is worth noting too, that the official figures make no reference to metropolitan versus suburban or rural areas, but this is arguably just as important given the remarkable political divide between big cities and the rest of the country.
Conservative Home readers will know this issue isn’t new. The TaxPayers’ Alliance first analysed these stats seven years ago. Fraser Nelson was noting how the right, unlike the left, had failed to understand “staff is policy” when decrying the fact under David Cameron in 2011-12 that an extraordinary 77 per cent of appointees were Labour supporters. But with a new government that has recently received a massive endorsement from the electorate, now seems to be the perfect opportunity to take action.
So what can be done to make quangos more reflective of public attitudes? An important first step would be to require almost all appointees to register a political preference. At present this number is just 8.6 per cent. The lack of declarations probably increases groupthink because appointees who do not declare a preference feel a sense of political “neutrality” even if their attitudes are anything but. This would not be a means of weeding out every non Conservative, or for that matter, allow Labour to do the same in the other direction when they next take power. Rather, it would allow for quantifiable proof of genuine diversity of opinion. If there must be diversity guidelines, then this is the form of diversity that should be prioritised, and government ministers marked against.
Ending the entrenched attitudes in government will be a long, complex and at times painful job. But no government has been better placed to do so than this one. Nor has it ever been so vital for the achievement of its agenda. If Johnson is to preside over a transformation anything like as significant as Blair, then cleaning up the state is a must. Cleaning up public appointments would be a good first step.