Think tanks are now an essential part of the political landscape. There was a time when political parties openly debated policy ideas: but no longer. Newspapers, social media, blogs, and twenty-four hour news channels are always circling, waiting to pounce on the first whiff of debate (which they call ‘disunity’, which it usually isn’t), or of a political party discussing an issue and slightly changing its position (which they call a ‘u-turn’, which it usually isn’t). Open political debate within political parties – at least, anywhere near where members of the public might see it – is therefore stifled: and when internal debate does occur, then there will often be someone who thinks that their particular cause will be served by leaking emails or memoranda to the press – and so party leaderships understandably do all they can to prevent such debate happening in the first place. The exception to all of this is the Green Party, in which the membership actively debates and decides policy – giving the media plenty of opportunity to attack the often not fully formed policies.
There used to be another location for policy debate: Royal commissions and similar parliamentary enquiries. These would be established to study often quite broad policy fields and to make recommendations to the Government of the day. Parliamentary enquiries are still used to study particular events, but rarely now to study policy fields. The reason is that if a parliamentary enquiry suggests policy changes that the Government doesn’t like, then the Government is left in the unenviable position of having to implement the policy change recommended, or saying that it will not do so, or leaving the report to gather dust, for all of which it might be criticised.
It is in this situation that think tanks have become increasingly useful. They will often be loosely related to political parties, and so will frequently study policy issues that the party wishes to think about. A party in government might take a think tank report off the shelf and decide to make the changes recommended: but because think tanks are not integrated with the political parties themselves, it is no problem either to the party or to the think tank if a party decides to take no notice of think tank reports.
An option open to think tanks, and not to political parties, is that they can choose to work together. A good example of this is the conference held on the 2nd March 2015 by the right-leaning Bright Blue and the left-leaning Fabian Society. At one of the sessions of the conference both the General Secretary of the Fabian Society, and the Assistant Director of the Adam Smith Institute, said that they thought a Citizen’s Income to be worthy of consideration, and that both of the think tanks were actively working on the issue. The other member of the panel, Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, agreed with them. This unbidden and unco-ordinated agreement between think tanks and CPAG suggests that the think tank and campaigning worlds are coming round to the idea that a Citizen’s Income might be an important mechanism for reducing poverty and inequality and might be of service to our society and our economy in a wide variety of other ways too. We look forward to their reports, and to political parties not leaving them to gather dust.