The ‘Revolving Door’ of Special Advisers?


A recent article in the Telegraph was critical of a ‘revolving door’ of special advisers (spads) from the last Labour government into charities or think tanks.

As outlined in the forthcoming book on spads by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, this blog post wishes to point out that the Telegraph article tells only an incomplete story;[1] first, a ‘revolving door’ implies not merely that spads go to work in a given sector after leaving office but that they also did so before. Second, the article does not examine where Conservative spads head after their time in Whitehall.

On the idea of a revolving door, our project coded the careers of special advisers before and after their time in Whitehall. The data suggest that the idea of a ‘revolving door’ with respect to the non-profit sector is overblown. Rather, of those who worked in the non-profit sector at some point in their career (32% of Labour and 15% of Conservative spads), the vast majority (74%) only joined that sector after leaving Whitehall.

When looking at think tanks, the claims in the Telegraph article are on stronger ground. Labour advisers were again more likely to work in a think tank after leaving Whitehall (15% vs 8% for the Conservatives). Moreover, of those who worked for a think tank at any point in their career, around 30% of Labour did so both before and after their time as a special adviser (the definition of a ‘revolving door’) whilst only 6% of Conservative ones did so.

Yet, when looking at the careers of Conservative advisers more broadly, a parallel picture emerges; a greater proportion (50% vs 38%) entered the ‘business’ world (broadly defined) after leaving Whitehall. And, again fitting with the idea of a revolving door, around 30% of those who worked in business did so before and after their time as a spad (compared to only 16% of Labour advisers).

What this data shows is perhaps simply a partisan difference; Labour has stronger connections to the third sector and think tanks whilst the Conservatives have stronger links to business. Both are more likely to draw their advisers from those sectors, and those advisers return there in greater numbers after leaving Whitehall. This is not inherently inappropriate and, whilst there are perhaps legitimate concerns about the ‘revolving door’ in some instances, it is important to be even-handed when analysing the issue and look at the entire picture of special advisers’ careers—rather than focusing on one party and one sector in isolation.

As a final comment on the role of IPPR, the broader evidence does support the claim of a strong link between the IPPR and Labour. However, it is worth noting that the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) had a similar relationship with the previous Conservative governments. Whilst the absolute number of Labour advisers going to work for the IPPR was larger, the proportions are roughly the same; in each party group, around 1/3rd of special advisers who worked for think tanks after leaving Whitehall went to the IPPR or CPS.

Max Goplerud is a student at the University of Oxford (Nuffield College) with an interest in European politics. His current research looks at why individuals form new parties to contest Parliamentary elections.

[1] Appendix 3 of the book, written by Anna Sellers who also provided much of the data on this question, examines special advisers’ post-Whitehall careers and the issue of the revolving door in detail.

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