ANALYSIS THINK-TANKS: Do Think-Tanks Still Have a Role in Shaping the Political Agenda? ; as Labour Establishes Its Own Policy Research Centre, the Influence Wielded by Groups Attempting to Move Political Debate Is Questioned
Grice, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)
IN 1988, a relatively unknown former British Rail manager called Kenneth Irvine wrote a pamphlet for the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) calling for British Rail to be privatised. Against all the odds, and despite warnings that his plan would create a "poll tax on wheels", it was taken up by the Conservative government.
Last year, the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research think- tank (IPPR) published a plan by Tony Grayling to unstitch the complicated patchwork of rail privatisation. He called for Railtrack to become a not- for-profit trust. Amid great secrecy, his plan was taken up enthusiastically by the Blair Government; Network Rail will be formally launched this autumn.
Politicians from Tony Blair downwards often grumble that today's think- tanks are failing to produce the fresh thinking with which they fizzed during their heydays in the Thatcher era. Yet the prominent role played by the ASI and IPPR in the saga of Britain's rail industry shows their influence should not be underestimated.
It may be true that today's think-tanks do not enjoy the direct influence of their halcyon days in the 1970s and 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher gave them responsibility for deciding Tory policy. When the ASI, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), set up by Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph in 1974, issued reports, civil servants jumped; the groups enjoyed huge influence on issues ranging from education and health to the sale of state-owned utilities.
Today's think-tanks need to win arguments on merit if months or years of toil are to avoid gathering dust on Whitehall shelves. Although some groups reckon 50 per cent of their work is destined to prove a waste of time, there is no doubt they continue to shape the political agenda.
Perhaps the most fundamental change since Labour came to power in 1997, the decision to raise taxes to boost health spending, had its roots in the "grand-daddy" of the think-tanks, the Fabian Society, whose founders in 1884 included Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw.
In November 2000, a commission set up by the Fabians called for a "new politics of tax for public spending". It challenged New Labour's nervousness on tax rises after its research found that people would pay more tax if the money went to the NHS. The report seemed too far ahead of the curve, and yet Gordon Brown's Budget in April implemented just such a policy.
When the Chancellor unveils his comprehensive spending review next week, he will extend educational maintenance allowances, a trial scheme under which children from low-income and middle- income families are paid pounds 40 a week to stay on at school after 16. This was the brainchild of the IPPR, probably the most influential of the think-tanks.
The IPPR also invented so-called baby bonds, under which the state would invest a lump sum for every child born, to provide a nest egg for later in life, in the hope of reducing social inequality. It also kick-started the sensitive debate on the role of the private sector in delivering public services. Fittingly, the IPPR managed to upset the Government by criticising the private finance initiative and the trade unions by saying that private involvement was not wrong in principle.
Other IPPR work has helped shape policy on housing, migration, training and the digital revolution. Its current project, on state funding of political parties, is timely for Mr Blair after allegations that Labour donors get special treatment from the Government.
But the IPPR does not always succeed. Recent calls for the basic state pension to rise in line with earnings have fallen on deaf ears. Matthew Taylor, the IPPR director, said: "Any think-tank is only as good as its last idea. You need five things - academic credibility, political savvy, to understand how government works, to network with the corporate, voluntary and community sector and a clever media strategy."
There are, inevitably, close links between the policy groups and the Government and political parties. Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, and her special adviser Jim Godfrey, are both ex- IPPR. And it works both ways. David Mepham has left his post as Clare Short's special adviser to join the IPPR. Mr Taylor, Labour's former head of policy, is one of four IPPR figures who have turned down higher- paid posts with the Government to retain their independence.
Such links have fuelled allegations that think-tanks are in danger of becoming a surrogate means for private-sector firms to get "cash for access" now that more open lobbying is seen as off limits. Think-tanks are cash- strapped and need to raise money from sponsorship, so are potentially a means for companies to influence policy and meet ministers at seminars and conferences. The people who run think-tanks angrily deny any conflict, saying that sponsors are told bluntly they cannot influence the conclusions of the work they fund.
But one Blair aide said: "If think-tanks concentrated on rigorous thought and innovative policies rather than headlines and sponsor- pleasing, they would be better. They need to enter the post-spin age, as the Government has done."
The Tory-leaning think-tanks view the party's current status - virtually a policy-free zone - as an opportunity. The CPS is mirroring Iain Duncan Smith's drive to come up with new policies on public services, and to set up groups on everything from education to finance and family policy.
There is no shortage of groups wanting to shape the new agenda. Allies of Michael Portillo, the shadow Chancellor, are trying to ensure the party modernises itself through change and produces a new raft of policies through the Policy Exchange think-tank, with which the Tories share an office.
Some groups are playing the field, aware that the ASI and CPS have been too closely identified with the Tories to influence Labour. The IPPR recently hosted a seminar on Tory economic policy. The Social Market Foundation, originally inspired by David Owen, has avoided party allegiances.
Today, the Labour Party sets up its own think-tank, a policy research centre called Forethought. The aim is to revive a genuine debate on policy in a party in which discussion has taken second place to discipline. A brainchild of David Triesman, Labour's general secretary, Forethought will try to look ahead to how Britain will be in 2020 and cover ground not trodden by outside think-tanks or the Downing Street Policy Unit.
In a crowded market, 2020 vision could become a useful commodity.
The Fabians were founded in 1884, named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius, famed for his strategy of delaying battle until the right time
Commitment to social justice evident since its 1889 pamphlet Why are the many Poor? Its ideas were at the core of the nascent Labour Party
Everyone from George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Apart from longevity, the Fabians were behind Labour Party reforms including "one member one vote" and ditching Clause 4
Centre for Policy Studies
Founded in 1974 by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, the CPS was the vehicle for the right's late-1970s takeover of the Tory party
Based their policies on principles of free markets, individual choice and respect for the law
David Willetts, former CPS director of studies; Sheila Lawlor, left, now director of the rival think-tank Politeia
Trade union reform, council house sales and pensions deregulation
Adam Smith Institute
Founded by Madsen Pirie, left, in 1977 and inspired by the Conservative thinkers Arthur Seldon and Keith Joseph
Best summed up by its 1994 pamphlet, 20-20 vision: a 10 per cent tax rate, private motorways and no dole
President Dr Madsen Pirie - he's still there and going strong
Rivals the CPS for its influence on Tory thinking. Advocated many of the Tory privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s, and parental choice in schools
Insitute for Public Policy Research
Seen as Tony Blair's favourite think-tank, it is run by Matthew Taylor, a former Labour party official
Came up with New Labour policies including the public private partnership; so-called baby bonds and educational maintenance allowances
Several alumni have gone on to greater things in the Government, notably Patricia Hewitt and David Miliband
The idea of a company limited by guarantee - a model used for Railtrack's replacement, Network Rail - had its genesis at the IPPR
Born in 1993 with the aim of "reinvigorating public policy and political thinking"
In a word, European. Advocate pan-European political parties, pan- European armed forces... even pan-European football teams
Geoff Mulgan, co-founder, now heads Tony Blair's "blue skies" Strategy Unit, Mark Leonard, below, the whizz kid behind "Cool Britannia"
Probably not Cool Britannia, now disowned by most of its young progenitors
Launched last month as a means of kindling the flame of Michael Portillo - without, of course, challenging the position of Iain Duncan Smith
In keeping with the new "caring" Portillo, C-change is committed to modernising the party, by encouraging women and ethnic minorities to join
The main keepers of the Portillo flame are Archie Norman and Francis Maude, former shadow cabinet members now out in the cold
Understandably limited, but some of Duncan Smith's more compassionate recent pronouncements suggest the message is getting through…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: ANALYSIS THINK-TANKS: Do Think-Tanks Still Have a Role in Shaping the Political Agenda? ; as Labour Establishes Its Own Policy Research Centre, the Influence Wielded by Groups Attempting to Move Political Debate Is Questioned. Contributors: Grice, Andrew - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: July 9, 2002. Page number: 15. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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