Why Jeremy Corbyn needs a think tank

The ideological battle lines are shifting. Think tanks are everywhere—except the political frontline
March 19, 2018

Anthony Fisher was the man who brought battery-farming to Britain. It may have been a cruel practice, but it was a transformatively efficient one—it turned chicken from a luxury into a British staple, and made this old Etonian fabulously rich along the way.

His big ideas did not stop there, however. At the end of the Second World War he had been inspired by Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom—the original neo-liberal manifesto. He planned to go into politics to bring the book’s message to the mainstream. But when he sought out Hayek, the Austrian economist suggested another approach. In these post-war years, amid ration books and grim memories of the depressed 1930s, a sort of social democratic corporatism had been institutionalised within the universities and the civil service. Hayek thought the fightback had to start among the “makers of opinions;” elective politics could wait. Fisher abandoned his plan to stand for parliament, and instead pursued the idea of launching a think tank.

Fisher masterminded the creation of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in 1955. He was swimming firmly against the tide, for this was the apogee of the “Butskellite” consensus. Rab Butler, the moderate Tory chancellor, and Hugh Gaitskell, his Labour shadow, seemed equally committed to a mixed economy in which the state took responsibility for full employment. Laissez-faire libertarians were consigned to the crankish fringe. Almost unnoticed, however—in obscure pamphlets and quiet seminar rooms—the IEA began making its case.

“Tank” might seem a misnomer, for the first 20 years were not about blitzkrieg but a grinding war of attrition. Only amid the great inflation of the 1970s did the IEA acquire an ear at the top. Margaret Thatcher snatched the Conservative leadership in 1975, full of right-wing zeal, but not yet a thought-through Thatcherism. Reinforcement arrived in the form of Keith Joseph’s Centre for Policy Studies (founded 1974) and the Adam Smith Institute (1977), and before long the right-wing tanks were road-testing and refining the ideas and policies that would define the politics of 1980s—privatisation, tax reform with deep cuts in top rates, and assorted schemes to expose public services to market forces.

Where are the ideas?

The late 1970s were one of those rare “sea-change” moments when the tide of ideas shifts, and along with it the realms of political possibility; having bided their time, the cerebral ideologues of the IEA were ready to pounce. Today, reflective supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and thoughtful communitarian Conservatives are agreed on one thing—after a third of a century of IEA-flavoured ideology, the time is again ripe for another big shift. Our economy seems to continually disappoint, and our politics pulsates with anger. This should, you’d have thought, prepare the ground for the political tanks. All the more so because, as in the 1970s, there is a shared conviction that Something Must Be Done.

Yet not only in Britain but in the United States and in Europe too, there are fewer new ideas than you’d hope about what “something” should be. The supply of political ideas seems to be part of the problem. For who, today, is the equivalent of the IEA of 1980? Or have think tanks given up on challenging the conventional wisdom, and preparing blueprints for an entirely different future? Certainly, the lack of obvious interest in them from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn might suggest as much.

The last great sea-change before the 1970s had been in 1945; again, certain ideas had been prepared for that moment. Ready for a clean break after the war, Britain elected a Labour government which proposed—and to an extraordinary degree implemented—a plan to recast the UK into a “socialist commonwealth,” complete with nationalised utilities, social security and a new public health service. While Attlee’s schemes were bold, none of the ideas that he acted on came out of nowhere. “Think tank” was not a phrase then.

But the Fabian Society, which—founded in 1884—must have some claim to be the world’s first political tank, had been churning out pamphlets on universal healthcare since Edwardian times. In 1933, Herbert Morrison had written a wonky book on socialised transport, which sketched out what became the nationalised corporation. The same year, he assumed the leadership of the London County Council, and ran it as what policy wonks might nowadays call a “do-tank”—proving what could be done with action, by flexing municipal muscle in ways that would wake Whitehall up to its own potential.

The impetus for much of the preparatory intellectual work was the Great Depression. Seven years after the Wall Street Crash we got Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money; after 10, the folkloric understanding of the slump was crystallised in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Today, 10 years after our own financial crisis, there is again a mood of reckoning. One can see it, for example, in the sudden swing in mood against the cosy public-private schemes of recent decades. Just think of the Carillion scandal, the backlash against a housing “partnership” scheme with a private corporation in Haringay, and the drip-drip of bad news about the cost of PFI.

As old thinking falls from fashion, you might have hoped that the ranks of think tanks would be ready to fill the space. Yet that is not how it seems to those inside them. None of the think tankers we spoke to—on either side of the political spectrum—think of themselves as developing an agenda for a new administration. Rather the feeling is, in the words, of Sophie Gaston, the Deputy Director of Demos, that “the old model of being a kind of ready-made policy factory for one particular party has run its course.”

A new role

It isn’t that think tanks have gone away. There are more than ever, many doing important work which Prospect honours annually, with its Think Tank of the Year Awards. But the nature of that work has changed.

They are often more occupied with elucidating the policy choices confronting the country than policy advocacy. Expert organisations—such as the Institute for Government and the Institute for Fiscal Studies—will speak up against self-defeating or outright silly policies, but their main role in the debate is to publish the sort of analysis that civil servants have always prepared for ministers behind closed Whitehall doors: “you can cut this tax or tweak that benefit, but you need to be aware that this is the cost, and this the side-effect.”

These purely expert tanks are fulfilling the hope that Keynes had for economists, managing “to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists.” In a world of spin, there is huge value in that, but it is not an approach to reset the discourse.

Meanwhile, ever-more think tank-like units are rolling out of universities—such as the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance and the UK in a Changing Europe, which is co-ordinated through King’s College, London. Why? Well, in the words of Simon Griffiths, a lecturer at Goldsmiths University who specialises in think tankery, “academics do more policy than they used to, we’re encouraged to have ‘impact’ in our ideas.”

Many of the new outfits are excellent; but “impact” has its limits. The protocols of public research funding still tend to exacerbate the normal scholarly distance from party politics. None of them is going to do for Corbyn or May what the IEA did for Thatcher.

And more, non-university think tanks have come to define success by more academic criteria—being authoritative, rather than being disruptive. The King’s Fund or the Nuffield Trust might make the case for integrating some element of social care with the NHS, but they are experts first, and advocates second.

In fields such as environment and energy, the turf of think tanks is so tightly demarcated that they are not set up to be peddlers of all-purpose ideas. While the Resolution Foundation (a wing of the same not-for-profit family as Prospect) has also up until now had a pretty specific agenda, regarding the living standards of the modestly-paid, it can point to concrete policy wins on the minimum wage and tax credits.

It is, however, meticulous in keeping clear of the partisan fray. Indeed, even-handedness is almost baked in, with Director Torsten Bell being a former Ed Miliband adviser, while the Executive Chair is David Willetts, a former Tory minister and a veteran of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit.

In sum, the worlds of academia and the tanks have converged. Few tanks any longer fulfil what Griffiths calls the old “conveyor belt model” of feeding ideas straight into politics; that has “broken down.” Few in think tank land would now expect to receive the phone call that Graham Mather, used to take “quite regularly.”

He led the IEA from 1987-1992, and he recalls—“you’d get a call from Whitehall asking you to come in urgently. You’d say, ‘why?’ And the reply would come, ‘well, if you must know, the prime minister has read your pamphlet on stamp duty reform, or whatever it might be, in her overnight box; it’s got her thinking, and she now wants the secretary of state to get motoring on your ideas.’”

No right turns

For tanks with ambitions on the right of the spectrum, the most immediate barrier to influence is May herself. Always a zipped-up character, she was never the sort of politician to have a favourite think tank, relying on a handful of personal advisers instead. “There were,” says Robert Colvile, the Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, “quite a lot of people who wanted to be the May think tank, but it quickly became obvious that the May think tank was Nick Timothy,” the famously-bewhiskered then joint chief of staff she was forced to sacrifice after last year’s botched election.

The challenges, however, go deeper than May’s personality. Think tanks—which largely survive by persuading corporates to cough up for year-long programmes of work—require stability. May can’t offer that. Perhaps, amid the vicissitudes of Brexit, no PM could.

In days gone by, reflects Ryan Shorthouse, of the centre-right Bright Blue, “think tanks felt that, yes, it was good to get in with the prime minister because you had that longevity… But now they are a bit nervous on that; you can’t attach yourself to a particular party or a particular faction.”

On the left flank, too, tankers who have been around for any length of time feel a sense of loss. Long-gone are the days when Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research were the training ground for front-rank politicians like David Miliband, as well as Downing Street wonks and fixers such as Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor. Today, Corbyn’s party prioritises crowd-pleasing campaigns over painstaking policy-wonkery, and the same organisations sound positively leery about getting too close.

“Other think tanks have found themselves attached to a party or a faction and it ended up being their undoing,” says the IPPR’s Tom Kibasi, “I don’t think it is our job to align ourselves to anyone.” Meanwhile, Demos now does a lot of work outside SW1—“creative industries, tech, education, the arts…” according to Gaston. And it is clear that she’s not looking back, as she adds pointedly, “It is no longer just government leading the agenda or shaping our lives.”

Does it matter?

If think tanks are not the party political force in the land that they once were, should anyone care? Some might say that for the past 20 years, political tanks were less about serious thinking than rationalising the things that politicians were already set on. While working in government many years ago, one of us was visited by a young think tank researcher, who asked for tips on what might be going in an official green paper. Their hope was to pre-empt it in a report, which would—it was earnestly explained—ensure that the think tank would look to be on the money, and also give the government’s settled plan some intellectual ballast.

While the inexperience of that researcher may have made them particularly craven, right through the Blair and Cameron years, many tanks could probably be charged with putting too little time being truly provocative, and too much time in getting behind politicians who were on their way up. The era of the self-styled modernisers was, after all, very much about political messaging, slick marketing and rebranding.

Demos retained a social scientist who rebranded himself, changing his name to “Perri 6;” it would sometimes produce reports wrapped in tinted, translucent vellum paper. The IPPR was more worthy. It would produce detailed analysis on things like public-private partnerships, which was cogent enough, and may even have drawn the government’s eyes to some errors in the way it drew up contracts.

But in broad-brush, political terms, such detail was less important than the mood it created. By nit-picking over the small print of Blair’s private medical treatment centres or Brown’s PFI, the tanks engaged in a way that created the impression that a serious, progressive body of opinion underlay the settled thrust of these government policies.

Very often, eye-catching but costly proposals from the tanks were seized on with energetic opportunism by opposition leaders— before being discarded in government. The IPPR’s 1994 Commission on Social Justice proposed “modern social insurance,” insisting “means-testing will not work.” It was said to be hugely influential with New Labour; but almost as soon as the party took office it was raising means-tested payments, while cutting back on contributory benefits.

A dozen years later, the self-styled Red Tory Phillip Blond—a creative, one-off of a theologian-turned-tanker—was briefly said to have David Cameron’s ear, during his “Big Society” phase. That phrase pulsated through the almost-winning 2010 manifesto, but didn’t survive contact with office. Although a bright man, Cameron was never one to be overburdened with ideas—he looked to Policy Exchange and Blond’s ResPublica to refresh his party’s “aroma.” Likewise, although Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice can point to concrete influence on the universal credit, the rebirth of this former Scots Guard as an anti-poverty warrior was always central to the mission.

Thinking the unthinkable

Some, then, may look back at the recent history and say “good riddance” to political tanks. That verdict, however, is too harsh. While the likes of the IPPR may have been partly concerned with rationalising Blair’s centrist electoral strategy, on occasion they shifted the dial. Its work, for example on so-called “asset-based welfare” led to the Child Trust Fund, which—until austerity did for it—provided every new-born with a nest egg. The thought would simply never have occurred to the civil service.

The same think tank’s work on pensions argued—against Treasury orthodoxy of the time—for a higher basic pension, part-funded by a higher pension age. That prepared the ground for an enduring cross-party consensus.

On the Tory side, without a Policy Exchange brainwave, the Coalition would never have gone for elected Police and Crime Commissioners. More consequentially, in the assessment of Shorthouse of Bright Blue, the Coalition’s entire free school agenda “came out of” the same tank. “James O’Shaughnessy and Charlotte Leslie wrote that paper, and then that whole thing was pitched for about five or six years before it got on to government.”

If that preparatory work hadn’t been done, it must be doubtful that Michael Gove could have legislated—as he did—within weeks of coming to power. Gove then turned to another purpose-built tank, the New Schools Network, to bypass the civil service and drive his agenda through with breakneck speed.

Here’s the rub. The whole reason to be for political think tanks is to challenge the conventional, official wisdom. That is an important task at any time, but never more so than when the tide of ideas is turning. Certainly, that is how Graham Mather conceived his task during the IEA’s glory days: “A huge part of what we were always trying to do was to over-turn Sir Humphrey’s presumption that everything had to be run as it always had been.”

This disruptive determination was shared with friends at the Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies. “We were all trying to do the same thing,” he said, “so rather than be rivalrous, we developed a of division of labour—we had the link with the universities, Adam Smith did the advocacy, and CPS would develop the detail into something that looked just like a ready-made white paper, which is what it often became.”

There were aspects of the trio of Thatcherite tanks that weren’t savoury—the IEA and Adam Smith received tobacco money; Alf Sherman, who was a Thatcher confidante when he led the CPS, held some decidedly racist views. But their collective intellectual energy was both remarkable and consequential. And, for Mathers a sincere determination to challenge mandarins’ monopoly on ministerial ears went beyond party politics; he gave practical advice to a Labour counterpart, John Eatwell, as he was setting up the IPPR.

Why? “We just thought we’d shaken things up, that was all to the good—the more the merrier, I thought, more tanks meant more ideas, and more chance for the best ideas to win out.”

In his day, after all, big ideas did change British politics, in a way they have not done since. Today, there is, or ought to be, the chance that new ideas could do the same again. But who is going to supply them?

The new politics, same as the old politics?

Much of the programme Corbyn wants Labour to stand on isn’t much different from the programme he would have felt comfortable with 30 years ago. For all the popularity of the Labour manifesto, it was striking how many of the headline commitments were about restoring the pre-Thatcher order: bringing back student grants; renationalising British rail. This is odd, and not only because the left has traditionally defined itself against those who want to turn back the clock. If tackling social injustice is the perennial mission, then the policies—surely—should evolve to take account of the shifting faultiness of inequality.

In Thatcher’s day, pensioners were still more, rather than less, likely to be poor than the average; the division between the haves and the have-nots was basically about what people earned at work; today, by contrast, it’s more about home-ownership and pension pots. So new answers are needed. Unions can and do provide some research, but their first reflex is not to dream of a brave new world, but to protect the pre-existing interests of their members; decades of being in retreat has only made them more defensive.

As Chris Giles of the Financial Times has written, there ought to be scope for the radical left to do more than dig in today. Its “important advantage is its ability to worry less about preserving individual property rights” than other, more moderate forces. Property rights are never absolute, but always subject to regulation and tax. The case for attenuating them more is, arguably, stronger in a society where rising house prices are making fortunes depend ever-less on what you earn, and ever-more on what you own.

Giles sketched out planning and land reforms which the radical left could use to rebalance the scales against property owners, in ways that would make conventional politicians balk. We would add axing the capital gains tax exemption on first homes—a perk that entrenches the advantages of the home-owning haves against the renting have-nots. But no politician is going to touch that until the ground has been prepared. Which is what—you’d have hoped—a credible, radical left think tank would be doing.

But where are they? Corbyn’s detractors would blame him for their absence; they say he’s more interested in protest than policy and so doesn’t make a receptive audience for disruptive schemes in the way that Thatcher did. John McDonnell, however, seemed to have spotted a think tank-shaped hole in his armoury when he convened a brains trust of celebrated economists. But big names like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz were too busy and widely-scattered to produce day-to-day advice; there were soon questions about whether, and how often, his panel had actually met.

The Labour left may not have an equivalent of Thatcher’s CPS or IEA yet. But there are a few outfits which might—with a fair wind—be candidates to move into that space. CLASS is a newish think tank which, according to director Faiza Shaheen, was created and bankrolled by a few unions that were humble enough to recognise “we don’t really have a space for real left ideas and thinking.”

Up until now, it has been pushing “a lot of the policies that were in the [2017] manifesto” rather than anything more novel, but—if it can secure enough distance from union bureaucracy—it could have potential. The New Economics Foundation, an unusual and sometimes eccentric mix of the red and the green, could be another; it was from here that McDonnell snapped up an economic policy adviser, James Meadway.

Lessons from 2017

Leftists are unlikely to draw in the kind of funding that flowed into the likes of the IEA from millionaire entrepreneurs, or into the New Labour think tanks from corporates like KPMG and Capita that enjoyed profitable relationships with government. There is, however, nothing to stop them from funding things a different way. One thing which the Corbynites have been remarkably good at is persuading people to do something which was previously deeply unfashionable—to join a political party, or the fast-growing faction, Momentum. The Fabian Society grew with the support of individual members, and Maher, who used to run the IEA, spies an opening on the left for a “Fabian-type, subscription-based, business model.”

In one niche field, monetary reform, one such tank has emerged: Positive Money. It was set up by a bunch of thinkers and activists (many of them from the Occupy movement) who were enraged by the rot exposed by the crisis. It is headed up by Fran Boait, who explains: “we built a movement around us; we have 45,000 people on our database and 70,000 on social media… In the UK we have 35 local groups around the country and they meet, some… do reading groups.” At times, half the outfit’s total funding has come directly from this supporter base. It makes detailed proposals on banking and Quantitative Easing, which are disdained by orthodox voices, but have sparked debate among some serious economists. Interestingly, its political links could get tighter: Boait has been picked to run for Labour in the competitive seat of Gloucester.

"The manifesto of May’s one-man think tank, Timothy, became notorious"

On the Conservative side, after the debacle of general election 2017, there is a new desire for fresh and independent thinking—for reasons of both tactics and strategy. The manifesto of May’s one-man think tank, Timothy, became notorious, especially its so-called “dementia tax” which many Conservatives think cost them their parliamentary majority. There were flaws in the detail, but there was also a seriousness of purpose in the aim—tapping Britain’s vast property wealth to fund the vast hole in its social care budget.

How different things could have been had Downing Street been capable of delegating some of the intellectual work. The social care policy could have been floated and honed, rather than dropped into the middle of a campaign—and then dropped entirely. Had it come from a friendly think tank first, May could have expressed interest, and then tested the reaction. She didn’t, and paid the price.

So much for the tactics. But there are also deeper strategic reasons for rolling the tanks back into the frontline. After long years of austerity, thoughtful members of the Conservative tribe know that the family and the community, two traditional Tory words, both need more pro-active support than is afforded by laissez-faire liberalism combined with ever-more squeezed public budgets. Even May senses it, returning time and again to the speech gave the day she became prime minister, which focused on the plight of the “just about managing.”

She’d apparently pinched that phrase from Policy Exchange, but she hasn’t been able to convert what she had hoped would be her defining mission into a convincing policy agenda. That is partly because Brexit is consuming her government, thanks in no small part to the intra-parliamentary think tank the European Research Group. which has had the audacity to think big. It is also because prime ministers are busy; they shouldn’t be embarrassed about needing a little help.

To provide that help, right-wing tanks—just like their counterparts on the left—have serious work to do to get to grips with these changing times. In this moment of intellectual inflection, Sam Bowman, the former executive director of Adam Smith Institute, despairs at his own side’s intellectual laziness. “Free market think tanks have fallen out of favour with the Tory party, with good reason—they have believed their own bullshit for a long time and have become so confident that they’re right about everything that before they even hear the question, they’ll know the answer, and the only difficulty is figuring out the justification for it.”

So there we have it: formulaic policies that no longer work and stale assumptions that need to be challenged. As the Thatcher revolution took hold, the CPS director Alf Sherman said the whole point had to be to go to politicians, and “Tell ‘em things they don’t know already.” That sounds like good advice for think tanks at any time, but never more so than now.