The wonks are coming of age

Rarely have think-tanks had such an opportunity to influence policy

They thought they had got over the worst once they had struggled through their eight-minute presentations on "Can there be a Third Way in foreign policy?" But there was one more hurdle. "Would you go ahead and publish a report if the No 10 Policy Unit and the Foreign Office didn't want you to?"

This was the awkward predicament faced by candidates applying for the position of director of the new Foreign Policy Centre. With luminaries such as Tony Blair and Robin Cook on the letterhead, and with Cook's special adviser and an adviser from the Policy Unit acting as chief inquisitors, such a blunt question about political allegiance should have come as no surprise.

The centre is not the only think-tank where you can detect high-level political "interest". Demos is seeking a new director to replace Geoff Mulgan, who resigned in October to spend more time with the No 10 Policy Unit. There are concerns that Mulgan is having a tough time severing his umbilical link to the organisation he helped found, and is lobbying hard for his chosen successor.

At the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) meanwhile, a new Blairite director has recently been appointed to replace Gerry Holtham, a clever, Eeyorish man, who resigned in June to re-seek his fortune in the city. Early applicants received a quickie interview, taking less time than it would to hire a new secretary. A shortlist of three was drawn up. Then nothing for a month. Candidates waited for the second round. It never came. In October Matthew Taylor was anointed.

Taylor is seen by many as an Identikit Blairite: shorn hair, sharp suit and quivering bleeper. He has the CV to support the image: assistant general secretary of the Labour Party and director of policy during the election. It is a whispered secret that he was offered a post inside No 10.

Taylor's appointment may seem to confirm No 10's footballing tendency to delineate the world into on- and off-side factions, ousting awkward types, such as Holtham, and replacing them with the tried and trusted few.

But the reality is somewhat different. Realeconomik as much as Realpolitik influenced the selection of Taylor. Although some trustees were unhappy with the candidates, there was financial pressure not to grind through a further round of interviews: the IPPR needed a cash injection after the fund-raising lull left by Holtham's departure and Taylor, among his other skills, looked best able to deliver.

The biggest headache for think-tanks is that they offer a salary of only £35,000 or so but want to attract people with an unusually wide range of skills: political savvy, academic credibility, ideas and the ability to hustle for funds. Chatham House had to call in headhunters to find a new director. The increasingly influential new Centre for European Reform was lucky to attract Charles Grant as its director, after he took a pay cut from the Economist. The Foreign Policy Centre appointed 24-year-old Mark ("Cool Britannia") Leonard, formerly a Demos wunderkind, only after a trawl through the foreign policy community had failed. Many of those rumoured to have applied for Demos are already associated with it, such as Tom Bentley, a 25-year-old researcher, Helen Wilkinson and Ian Christie, the current deputy director. Demos hopes to appoint someone by Christmas. (Put your money on Bentley.)

Once in place, though, there is a real opportunity for think-tankers to become highly influential by engaging with a government whose thinking is still relatively inchoate on many issues. A tone of constructive criticism is more likely to pay dividends (and internal wages) than desultory shin-kicking.

In their pursuit of influence, the various think-tanks are adopting very different approaches. Though he passed the political loyalty test, Leonard thinks that "trying to second-guess what the government's agenda is may confer short-term influence, but ultimately this influence is limited because you are not changing the public debate. Think-tanks often work best by being outrageous, not second-guessing."

Leonard hopes to use the media as a "battering ram" to force through new conventional wisdom in foreign affairs, and wrestle influence away from the leather-armchair elites of Chatham House.

At the Fabian Society, the general secretary Michael Jacobs argues that "influence cannot be the criterion for how you choose what work you do". Jacobs, an environmental economist who landed the post last year after fighting off younger, newer Labour contenders, is some way from being an Identikit Blairite. Instead he recognises that he must tickle his members' ideological tastes as much as the government's, as they provide one-third of the society's cash. He describes his relationship with government as a hokey-cokey, "half-in and half-out".

Matthew Taylor, however, is keen to move the IPPR to the heart of political debate; he wants to shift the focus away from micro-policy on to bigger-picture projects, such as new technology, and to raise the institute's media profile.

The danger, as Eamonn Butler of the pro-free market Adam Smith Institute sees it, is that the IPPR will go the way of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS). "It became so close to the government that it in effect became part of the Policy Unit and disappeared." As for his own think-tank, it does not seem to be suffering from a similar identity crisis: "We have the same relationship with this government as we had with the previous one," he claims.

Over on the right, the Institute of Economic Affairs is equally dismissive of all this talk of repositioning.

"We never position ourselves according to what the government is doing," explained David Green, the director of the health and welfare unit. "We want to encourage discussion about liberty and the market economy. We keep ploughing that furrow."

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times