Friday, 17 June 2016

Think tanks 001

Think tanks are an important tool in changing public attitudes and the terms of political debate over the medium-long term. This makes them a key resource for the resurgent Labour Left.

The use of think tanks as a political tool in the UK and US has been dominated by the right. An obvious example is the Centre for Policy Studies, set up by Thatcher and Joseph in 1974. This is widely regarded as having played a key role in propagating the 'free-market' ideology that went on to become the received wisdom in British mainsteam politics during the 90s and 00s. More recent examples from the UK, also closely connected to, but not officially affiliated with, the Conservative Party, are the Taxpayer's Alliance and Policy Exchange.

In the US, the Koch brothers bankroll a number of think tanks, thus illustrating two points:

First, the Right has an obvious advantage in this area since it represents the very rich and thus has access to plentiful unregulated spending to set up think tanks. The use of spending power by the Conservative party and its small number of very rich supporters and allies is illustrated across the range of political activity: supplying expenses-paid holidays for Young Republicans in exchange for political canvassing, mass-purchasing Facebook 'likes' and paid Twitter accounts, at least six battle buses, the recruiting people from job centres to hand out leaflets in the street, buying fake front pages, or 'wraparounds' in local newspapers. Like the carefully-staged speeches in warehouses with camera angles designed to make a handful of supporters look like a crowd, all these activities are designed like a conjuring trick to give the appearance of a vigorous and popular political movement. The Labour Roots Project is intended, among other things, to provide a counterweight to the Conservatives' financial head-start in the propaganda war. The Right has the money, but we have the people.

Second, think tanks and similar organisations do not operate in isolation. By funding a network of thank tanks, often 'virtual' organisations sharing staff and resources, the right magnifies their impact, since one think tank cites another in the network and apparently independent organisations work in tandem to push the same message. When such an echo chanber operates on the public discourse, it can give any idea the semblance of being a mainstream opinion. The Neo-cons are masters of this technique, having created a baffling tangle of interlocked think tanks, lobbying organisations, publications, websites and campaigning groups such as the Henry Jackson Society.

 Think tanks perform two heavily-overlapping functions: research and political advocacy. At the intersection of the two lies policy development. This may involve original research, but often too requires shaping the detail or emphasis of policy with an eye to public and media opinion, to consistency of message, and to facilitating advocacy or furthering other goals such as political 'positioning'.

Think tanks, being at least nominally independent of political parties, are in a position to try out and 'market test' new ideas, and to attempt to shift the 'centre ground' of the debate by act as 'outrider', taking relatively extreme positions that politicians would not espouse. Thank tanks can work to gradually operate on public opinion, if their findings are given publicity in a sufficiently striking, simple and memorable form It is relatively easy to set up a think tank, especially one that is focussed more on influencing opinion than on intensive research.

My own (i.e. TW's) concerns extend to trying to get (or get the LP to get) a wider network of quasi-autonomous traditional-style think tanks going. That is largely a separate project from this one.

However, the idea of setting up think-tank like units under the umbrella of what is currently LRP & using its resources is obviously within our remit here.

Additionally it may be that new types of organisational or functional unit emerge, blurring further the distinctions between think tanks, party policy units, informational websites, blogs, etc.

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