Ideas and analysis – what politicians want from social scientists

Interview with Chair of All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Science & Policy.

Kelvin Hopkins is MP for Luton North and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Science and Policy. The Group’s purpose is to bring together parliamentarians and social scientists, and to demonstrate the value of social science research.

First elected to Parliament in 1997, Kelvin Hopkins has a degree in social science and spent most of his pre-parliamentary career working for trade unions. He has a wide range of interests both inside and outside Parliament. He talked to socialsciencespace about what the Group would be doing to promote social science in the current Parliament, and why he believes this is so important.

SSS: What’s the role of the All-Party Group on social science and policy – why do you think it needs to exist?

KH: The original aim of the Group was to close the gap between social policy-makers and social researchers – to give parliamentarians the opportunity to hear directly from social scientists about their work and their findings, and to create an opportunity for debate. When I took over as chair after the 2010 election, I wanted to continue this approach. We meet several times a year and hear from a wide range of speakers, across all sorts of subjects – everything from energy policy to pension reform. We need to get beyond the ‘Westminster bubble’ and find out what’s really going on out there. We want to hear from people who tell the truth, even if that’s uncomfortable.

Politics is overly dominated by personalities, and by the media. There’s not enough of a focus on ideas. Ideas are not the same as ideology, and politicians are increasingly drawn to, and driven by, the same ideology – whether they are Orange Book liberals, or Blairites, or free-market Tories.

We need a more analytical approach to public policy, and the All-Party Group is an opportunity to explore key issues and ask questions. It’s vital that members of parliament ask questions and find out truths, rather than simply accepting prejudices about what can and can’t be discussed and changed. MPs aren’t always good enough at asking questions – it wasn’t encouraged under Tony Blair!

SSS: How did you first become interested in social science, and what aspect of it interests you most?

KH: I was always interested in it – I did my degree in Politics, Economics and Maths with Statistics at the University of Nottingham in the 1960s. One of the things that most interests me is political behaviour – understanding why people behave as they do.  As a student I was influenced by Professor Julius Gould, who was one of my tutors. Another influence was Kingsley Martin’s book ‘The Crown and the Establishment’. It’s all about questioning why things are the way they are.

SSS: Is the coalition government focusing enough, so far, on the evidence base for policy-making? How do you think it compares with the previous government?

KH: I think they’re not doing too badly so far at paying attention to what the research shows – look at this week’s announcement on the government’s plans to set a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales. That’s a step in the right direction, a toe in the water, even if it doesn’t go quite as far as the research suggests it should. It suggests that ministers are open to considering evidence and acting on it.

The previous Labour government might have spent money on research, but they commissioned research that would give them the answers they wanted! Going back to alcohol pricing – the evidence was there, but Labour didn’t act.

SSS: How can social scientists demonstrate more effectively to policy-makers the value of what they do?

KH: Society needs social science more now than ever. We can solve all kinds of technological problems – it’s behavioural problems that are still a challenge. But it’s played down in public debate – even though the sort of issues that social science addresses are the ones we know are of greatest concern to the public.

International comparisons are good. Social scientists can show how particular policies work in other countries, and what we can learn. I always like looking at Sweden, where the evidence suggests that higher levels of both tax and public spending result in better lives for the people who live there.

Policy-makers need to make decisions that are well-informed and based on the best evidence we can find – it’s up to social scientists to make the case, to present their evidence compellingly, and not make bigger claims for it than the research shows. They have a role to play in stopping governments making policy on the basis of ideology alone.