Four reasons why policy-making shouldn't be outsourced to right-wing think tanks

Take a look at the institutions to which, if Francis Maude gets his way, the Government will be outsourcing policy. Does it seem sensible to you?

 

The “report from a respected think tank” news story is a staple of political reporting these days, especially now that the average news desk is manned by three hacks on minimum wage and a couple of kids on work experience. The media doesn’t tend to ask too much about the people producing these reports - they just give us the headline, give us a response from someone who doesn’t like it, and bang, story done.

And what this means is that big business has a louder voice than ever. Corporations have been able to quietly influence policy outside of traditional lobbying procedures in the past by infiltrating the civil service via the revolving door of the jobs market, but that advice is at least supposed to be objective. Now Francis Maude is suggesting that Government policy making should be outsourced to - among other bodies - think tanks, which have tax-free charitable status based on their aims to improve public policy. This isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it certainly raises questions about transparency and accountability. Here’s a quick look at a few of the think tanks on the right to illustrate why.

1. Reform

Founded by Nick Herbert, one of those Tories it’s generally considered ok for lefties to like. Unlike pretty much every other right-wing think tank, is open about who funds it and how much. Last year it received £1,251,501, which you’d hope would pay for some damn good ideas. On that note: produced a report this year entitled The Case for Private Prisons, which suggested private prisons offer better value for money and lower reoffending rates, an argument which wasn't supported by the Prison Reform Trust and was even described as “simplistic” by prisons minister Jeremy Wright.

Co-incidentally, three of its “corporate partners” are G4S, Serco and Sodexo, who run all the private prisons in Britain. This is pretty much par for the course - in the pages of the Times and Telegraph Reform has previously bigged up privately-run custody suites, and the idea of G4S bobbies on the beat. But unlike most of the others, at least it's open about where it’s coming from.

What’s a bit more under the radar, however, is the issue of ministerial access. Reform has previously claimed corporations like G4S are “left out of the Whitehall policy discussion” which is, well, debatable (yes, that’s 17 meetings with ministers since 2010). But fear not - it’s doing what it can to remedy the situation. In its prospectus for the Tory Party conference it boasted to potential sponsors that it could set up “successful events attended by ministers and shadow ministers, special advisers, MPs, MEPs and council leaders”, among them Mark Prisk, Lord Freud and Mark Hoban. Any “partner organisation” could use roundtable events or dinners with “around 20 high-level participants” to put their own “insights into the relevant policy debate at the beginning of the meeting”.

2. Policy Exchange

Founded by Nick Boles, Michael Gove and Francis Maude. To get a feel for the enthusiasm of this merry camp of dreamers, you need only read Gove’s sadly-deleted and somewhat hyperbolic testimony on their website: “Policy Exchange were a tiny band of guerrillas, partisans in the hillside fighting a lonely campaign, but now, that tiny guerrilla band has turned into the most formidable regular army on the thinktank battlefield."

If Reform is the Greg Dyke of right wing think tanks, Policy Exchange is undoubtedly the John Birt: “blue sky” doesn’t come close. Reform’s ideas might annoy everyone except those who don’t like big government, but Policy Exchange regularly sets the bar higher and manages to get on their wick too. If you want a good example, think of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, described by then “Head of Crime and Justice” Blair Gibbs as “the boldest reform to policing since the 1960s”.

Gibbs is a classic Tory think tank wonk: Oxford University Conservative Association, stints at Reform and the Taxpayers’ Alliance, MP’s researcher, Policy Exchange, and now he’s working for BoJo. An impressive CV which suggests a somewhat detached relationship with the practicalities of the field in which he’s an "expert". He was on Twitter, but described himself as one of the “four horsemen” of police reform, and this provoked such a furious reaction he had to leave. Let’s face it, if you’re a copper who risks his life every time he goes to work and who’s about to be hit by Government cuts, that’s probably not the sort of thing you want to read from a twenty-something policymaker.

(Incidentally, this is a common complaint about think tanks - salaries tend to top out pretty early, which means their employees go and do something else (usually working as Spads). To quote Zoe Williams: “It is noticeable [...] how often you're told by a 28-year-old that care of patients with Alzheimer's can be managed by text message and ‘parenting classes can improve community engagement and lead to local wellbeing’”.)

Anyway, the PCC plan has been hit by a number of setbacks. First, it’s never a good idea to hold an election when you don’t know who the candidates are or indeed what they’re standing for. Then you’ve got the Paris Brown affair and now this extraordinary freedom of speech horrorshow, which is a whole blog post in itself. One of the companies to fund Policy Exchange is Deloitte, which issued press releases saying PCCs must “get to grips with current policing operations” and “focus on reforming pay, pensions and paperwork, the financial management of their force, and cutting costs.” Hard to think which firm they could hire to achieve that.

3. Centre for Social Justice

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), founded by Iain Duncan Smith, is perhaps the most prominent face of modern compassionate conservatism. Which to many means: wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its output and the thinking behind the Government’s welfare reforms are so closely related as to be indistinguishable - its last head, Philippa Stroud, is now Duncan Smith’s Spad, the current one was his speech writer. All three are churchgoers: all the fun of traditional Tory cuts, but now with added evangelical Christian zeal!

So the CSJ doesn’t believe in benefit “scroungers”, but it is big on the whole “tragedy of generations trapped on benefits thing”; though it hasn’t said much on the reports suggesting this framing is somewhat overplayed. To be fair to the CSJ, it’s shown a certain open-mindedness of late. Its director gave an interview to the Guardian in which he admitted the think-tank hadn’t concentrated enough on in-work poverty, instead focussing on those old right-wing bugbears like drug addiction, benefit dependency and, rather more controversially given the story described in the first link above, family breakdown. Now you might think he’s come to the table a bit late on all this, and you’d be right, what with people in this publication and others making the point that the majority of benefits claimants are in work for oh, I don’t know, YEARS, but it’s a start.

And you have to say the CSJ seems generally more well-intentioned than others. Or at least you do if they’ve quoted you in their research (oh yes, dear readers). But this rather begs the question of who’s funding their work. Someone gave them circa £1.5m last year to come up with their ideas, but we have no idea who they are. We can see that one of the CSJ’s award sponsors is the recruitment firm Manpower, and that raises questions, because that firm is one of the largest shareholders in Working Links, a major player in the DWP’s Work Programme and which has been accused of systematic fraud. Maybe we don’t want to go down this rabbit hole, because then you’d start asking whether it’s right that the people contracting (and indeed investigating) the firm in Government should also receive money from them in another capacity.

4. Centre for Crime Prevention

Just thought I’d drop this one in as it tells us rather a lot about how our media works. As you can see, the Centre for Crime Prevention has clocked up a number of media appearances, quoted in the Sun, Express, Metro and Mirror among others, with serious, weighty headlines like “Soft on hardened criminals: Now two thirds of serious repeat offenders avoid jail”, “Reoffending rates show "revolving door" community sentences not working, critics say,” and so on.

So they’re a right wing think tank and they like hard, punitive justice. Fair enough. But who are they? Well here’s the thing: they’re one man (Peter Cuthbertson from the Taxpayers’ Alliance), and his blog. Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take him seriously. Actually no, I am saying that. Read his quote here, then read this and see who you agree with. But that’s another issue.

I’m just saying that I have access to Google, some pretty damn trenchant views on stuff (mostly DVD box sets, but still) and the capacity to put out a press release. I’m no hack: I’m a think tank. Brace yourself, news editors.

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I could go on with all this, but I think you’re getting the picture. The question though, is whether think tanks backed by big business are such a bad thing. Hopi Sen has previously made a decent argument in favour of think tanks across the political spectrum. And these are certainly good for the bright young right wing things who work for them - they can go on to jobs as political advisers or at the firms whose backs they’ve been scratching - but they’re also good for you. Because really - what else are they going to do in their twenties? Go into journalism, get slowly driven mad by the experience of writing for an online audience and wind up calling people “Libtards” on Twitter while guffing on about climate change? Do we need more of that? Or even worse - go into proper politics and become an MP? Do you want the guy representing your democratic interests to have been submitting comedy motions about how his Oxbridge college could declare war on Brussels at Junior Common Room meetings two years previously? No, didn’t think so. The simple fact is these institutions provide a public service. Long may they reign.

Theresa May giving a speech at Policy Exchange in December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder