Artillery Row

Think tanks have to think again

Policy wonks either have to work within the system we’ve got or change it

What’s the point of think tanks?

Granted, the clue’s in the name, but there’s got to be a point to all the thinking. Presumably, the idea is that think tanks develop policy proposals that politicians implement, making the country a better place.

Think tanks have been struggling with the “politicians implement” bit of late. In a valedictory piece for his time running the Social Market Foundation, James Kirkup has bemoaned the lack of “courage” amongst politicians to do what needs to be done to address Britain’s biggest problems.

Kirkup’s “think tank directors’ manifesto” includes road pricing, planning reform, updating council tax valuations, another property tax to fund social care, higher tuition fees, higher workplace pension contributions and “proper interventions on obesity” (details unclear).

Many of these may well be good ideas, but none have actually happened. Why not? Because, as Kirkup admits, they’re not the most popular ideas.

When Tony Blair tried to introduce road pricing in 2006, he and his majority of over 60 seats were forced to back down. Now a think tanker himself, Blair is still beavering away at the idea. When Boris Johnson and his even bigger majority tried to reform the planning system, he too ended up being forced to retreat.

Politicians don’t want to implement these proposals because they’re likely to lose votes, get more abuse, lose council seats and maybe even lose their entire political career. On the other hand, opposing these ideas is a ticket to (relative) popularity, good local election results and job security.

Think tankers have broadly taken three different approaches to this problem. One is to simply highlight and lobby for what’s already popular. You might point out that outsourcing the thinking to the public like this defeats the entire purpose of a think tank.

Let’s imagine there was a mass outbreak of political courage

Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs takes the opposite approach, saying, “If you’re a politician, you have to work with public opinion as it is. But the whole point of a think tank is that we DON’T have to do that.”

There’s little value in shouting out ideas that nobody wants to hear, though, like an Old Testament prophet. It’s not much different to Maoists fantasising about what role they’d have under communism, or Catholic integralists aiming to rewrite the US Constitution. They think they’re right, it doesn’t matter whether anybody else does, and “how are you going to turn your ideas into reality” is just a silly question.

Kirkup, rightly dissatisfied with both approaches, lays the blame at the door of politicians and their lack of “courage”. Expecting other people to banzai charge themselves into potential electoral oblivion for you might not be the most reliable strategy either, though.

Politicians exist in a democratic system where they are expected to be responsive to public opinion. It’s easier than ever to contact your MP, form a single-issue campaign group to lobby them en masse, find out what they look like and challenge them in person (if you get the chance), and organise a tactical voting campaign against them if they don’t do what you want. It’s no surprise that parliaments are becoming increasingly rebellious when party whips are in an arm-twisting race with MPs’ own restless constituents.

After the last few years, it’s especially difficult to convince politicians that it’s worth spending a bit of public goodwill. Since 2017, the Tories have splurged political capital on the “dementia tax”, Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Dominic Cummings, Owen Paterson, Partygate and Trussonomics. Having gained his commanding position in the polls by watching his opponents compulsively touch third rails, Keir Starmer is understandably hyper-cautious by contrast, to the point where he’s even rowing back on ideas that poll well and match his party’s ideology.

Let’s imagine there was a mass outbreak of political courage. The think tank directors’ manifesto is adopted in full, and benefits start to flow from it. How likely is it, with trust in politicians so catastrophically low, that voters will connect those benefits to the policies they hated, let alone reward the MPs they hated for supporting those policies? How likely is it that the entire manifesto just gets repealed shortly after by new leaders voted in by an enraged electorate?

Politicians will do what our democratic system incentivises them to do. If they don’t, they’ll probably get replaced by ones who do. It’s no use asking them to have courage when they’re being encouraged by our democratic system to do the opposite.

Politically difficult reforms would do Britain a world of good

This isn’t a problem for politicians; it’s a problem for think tankers. It’s up to them to propose ways to encourage politicians to do what they want.

The first, most obvious, option would be to work on making their ideas more popular. Campaigning can, especially combined with the right circumstances, change public opinion. Maybe the distinction between “policy” and “comms” is outdated, and policy proposals should come with a marketing strategy attached.

Substantial spending cuts went from being politically toxic in 2005, to the centrepiece of a winning Tory manifesto five years later (and, since then, back to being toxic). Gay marriage, once a fringe idea, had the support of a comfortable majority of the public by the time it was legalised in 2013.

Granted, changing public opinion is difficult. Some good policies will always be controversial or unpopular, such that politicians in our current system are highly unlikely to touch them.

So why not change the current system? Think tanks could put forward reforms that would reduce the penalty for politicians who make the tough decisions they want to see.

One idea could be reforming the treadmill of “midterm” local elections, where voters invariably take out their anger towards Westminster on diligent councillors who happen to be wearing the wrong rosette at the wrong time. It’s no coincidence that two of the last three Prime Ministers found themselves turfed out by their own MPs within weeks of some catastrophic local election results.

There are plenty of other potential ideas: extending the parliamentary term to, say, seven years; changing the electoral system to dilute a single MP’s link to a single constituency; term limits for MPs or even Prime Ministers. Some of these may be unpopular, but would they really be more unpopular than road pricing or raising tuition fees?

It’s hard to deny that some serious, politically difficult reforms would do Britain a world of good. That has more to do with politicians being discouraged from making tough decisions by our current political climate and system, rather than a lack of courage in itself. If think tankers want to see their ideas translated into reality, it’s up to them to make the case for changing that system.

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