Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Sad Decline of the Policy Wonks: Rob Blackhurst Finds That London's Think-Tanks, Enslaved by Corporate Sponsors, No Longer Have a Significant Influence on the Political Parties

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Sad Decline of the Policy Wonks: Rob Blackhurst Finds That London's Think-Tanks, Enslaved by Corporate Sponsors, No Longer Have a Significant Influence on the Political Parties

Article excerpt

The British policy wonk has never been more in demand. In London alone, more than 40 think-tanks spew forth glossy tracts on everything from banning the advertising of junk food and allowing the royal princes to marry Catholics to winning the European constitution referendum and cutting single mothers' benefits. As in all crowded markets, think-tanks have had to diversify into niche markets--for local government (the New Local Government Network), healthcare (the King's Fund) and soon, if the Financial Times and ex-NS journalist John Lloyd realises his ambition, the media. And they represent every political stripe--from Compass on the left through new Labour's Institute for Public Policy Research to Civitas on the right (think every Daily Mail prejudice given intellectual ballast). Underemployed members of the intelligentsia can fill whole working days flitting between breakfast seminars, policy lunches and power drinks in think-tank land, SW1. Geoff Mulgan, the founder of Demos and former head of the 10 Downing Street Strategy Unit, says the British think-tank scene is "far healthier, more diverse and competitive than it has ever been".

Yet the think-tanks are failing in their main aim: to influence the policies of the political parties. Tony Blair is said to complain privately that new Labour think-tanks have failed to come up with policies that match his values in the way that the Institute of Economic Affairs helped Margaret Thatcher tear up the postwar consensus. Instead, Blair turns to John Birt for advice.

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Aside from a few neat ideas such as baby bonds, for which both the Fabians and the IPPR claim paternity, it is hard to think of any policy for which think-tanks made the running. It is the politicians themselves who do the dreaming, with Alan Milburn calling for more paid time off, the Home Office minister Hazel Blears suggesting that local communities have a whip-round for extra policing, and Stephen Byers proposing that inefficient refuse collection companies be sacked by local referendum. And Gordon Brown is a think-tank made flesh, with his ruminations on British identity, the role of markets in society and his plans for a new lending bank for the third world. Although most of these ideas were launched through think-tank speeches, the policy wonks just provided the venue and the vol-au-vents.

The problem for most British think-tanks is money--always in short supply, it has to be spread more thinly as they proliferate. You won't hear ideas being discussed very much in think-tank offices: organising the next event, publishing the next policy paper and chasing funding must come before changing the world. To survive, most have to turn themselves into unofficial lobbyists. Corporate sponsors pay (the going rate is about [pounds sterling]4,000) to have their chairman or chief executive at the same event as a cabinet minister--sometimes so that he has the chance for a discreet whisper, sometimes to borrow a bit of respectability.

That may sound dodgy, but no great harm is done; after all, everyone knows who's paying. Far more damaging is how corporate cash skews research agendas. The think-tanks are trapped by their paymasters into a bland managerialism, and thus become depoliticised. Corporate paymasters usually want to avoid partisan political debates. It is less easy to fund a seminar on the future of the National Health Service and the welfare state than one on the regulation of financial services or telecoms--issues that impinge directly on corporate profits. So Demos--which made huge waves in the 1990s, but now seems to have left the political sphere entirely, floating away on its own verbiage--worked with Cable & Wireless on a project about the "future of telecoms regulation". It duly concluded that Cable & Wireless's main rival, BT, should be broken up, leading to the Guardian headline: "Break up BT, says Demos. Its sponsor? C & W. …

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