Last night was the seventh Prospect Think Tank of the Year awards ceremony. About 150 people filled the Great Hall at King’s College in the Strand, London, for the occasion. We’ve come a long way from the small room in Blackpool where the prize was first awarded in 2001—but by chance the winner was the same, the Institute for Public Policy Research—the big centre-left think tank.
The think tank “Oscars” try to combine a hard-headed, appraisal of the year in the tanks with a celebration of the sector—not always successfully, as many think-tankers tell us every year. The truth is that it hasn’t been a vintage year in the British think tank world—as Lisa Harker, one of the new joint directors of the IPPR, admitted when collecting her prize from Ed Balls (see left—Harker in the think tank of the year tank top [credit: David Tett]). In the absence of any groundbreaking work this year, we awarded both prizes—the main award plus the international think tank of the year award—to two previous winners, the IPPR for the main award and the Centre for European Reform for the international prize. Both were in the nature of long-service awards for consistently strong and important work.
But if the running has been made anywhere this year, it has probably been on the centre right—as David Walker, chair of the judges, said in his summation of the “year in the tanks” (read the full text here). Policy Exchange, the heavyweight rival to IPPR on the right, and last year’s winner, had another strong year in 2007.
Think tanks have seldom been an important source of “headline” political ideas—naturally enough, these usually come from politicians themselves. Think of inheritance tax (George Osborne), social housing (Jon Cruddas) or the private equity loophole (the GMB union plus the right-wing press). But their ideas and research do still matter, and sometimes catch on long after they first emerge—think of the sudden interest in citizens’ juries, a Demos idea dating from the early 1990s.
The next 18 months offer a big opportunity for the main political tanks of centre-left and centre-right. As the last few weeks have shown, it is not at all clear what the Brownite “progressive consensus” is. For years Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander and others have been chiding the Blairites for their conservatism—but then the first major…