by Richard Reeves (20 August 2008)
It has been a difficult couple of weeks in thinktank land. First the Smith Institute was rapped over the knuckles by the Charity Commission for allowing itself "to become exposed to concerns it had supported government policy and was involved in party political activity inappropriate for a charity" – and lost both its chairman and director. Then Policy Exchange, described as "David Cameron's favourite thinktank", issued a report suggesting that the population of the north may be better off being shipped down to new towns in the south. Tim Leunig, the report's co-author admitted some of his ideas might seem "barmy": and in this, at least, he was right.
Both incidents point to a constant tension for all the thinktanks, which is how they position themselves politically. Under charity rules they are banned from engaging in party politics, but through their choice of personnel and subject matter it is usually clear where they stand. It would be madness to deny, for example, that the Institute for Public Policy Research is close to the Labour party when its alumni include David Miliband, Patricia Hewitt, Yvette Cooper, James Purnell and Dan Corry (current head of the No 10 Policy Unit). Likewise Policy Exchange and the Conservatives: two of its last three directors, Anthony Browne and Nick Boles, now work for Boris Johnson while the third, James O'Shaughnessy, is now policy director for David Cameron.
Thinktanks exist to bring fresh ideas to bear in policymaking and politics. They win their influence either through intimacy with their principal political "clients" or through independent technical expertise. They are listened to either in the way that you might listen to your spouse or your GP. The intimacy model guarantees media coverage because political journalists can easily make a story out of a report from a thinktank that represents a particular party or faction within a party. But this is a double-edged sword, as Policy Exchange discovered to their cost last week. In reality of course, thinktanks strike a balance between the two, and most aim to be critical friends of their political soulmates rather than getting into bed with them.
At the same time, it is inevitable that the shifting sands of politics will ensure that there is at least one "hot" thinktank, the one associated with the coming forces in politics and which finds it easiest to raise money – and raise a stink. Right now the thinktanks closest to Cameron are enjoying these mixed blessings; but IPPR, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies and Demos have all had their moments in the sun, too.
Looking forward, the erosion of the lines between the parties in many areas of policy and ideology suggests that a looser relationship to specific political groupings might be appropriate: Demos, for example, aims to be intensely political but not party-political. So long as a thinktank is clear about its intellectual centre of gravity, it ought to be able to engage with politicians from across the spectrum.
Some are now wondering whether the whole thinktank model is bust. The Labour minister Jim Knight suggests on his Facebook page that thinktanks, "ultimately very elitist top-down institutions populated with very bright people who politicians sometimes seem to sub-contract their thinking to", are out of date in an era of online networking, blogs and wikipedia. "Network-enabled policymaking" may replace boring old thinktank reports, he says.
The transmission, testing and collision of ideas in an environment with the immediacy of the web is certainly a huge challenge for thinktanks: but surely an opportunity too. So long as think-tanks can demonstrate real expertise – be "elitist" in the best sense of the term – they should welcome the heat of online debate.
And right now the political environment is an attractive one. Labour is trying to renew itself in office, a difficult task akin to fixing a car while driving it. The Liberal Democrats are anxious to build a distinctive political identity. And the Conservatives are searching for new ideas and intellectual frameworks to help them win and use power. So long as politicians are hungry for ideas, thinktanks have a bright future.
Published in The Guardian here.