Two years after the flagship Big Society idea was born, where do the Conservatives’ new ideas come from – and can they boost the party’s popularity? Channel 4 News investigates.
After Labour leader Ed Miliband managed to wow his party and the public with an impressive “look no notes” speech that claimed “one nation” back from the Conservatives, the pressure is on for the Prime Minister.
To woo the party faithful, there has already been the announcement of tougher laws against burglars, a cap on rail fares and automatic life sentences for serious crimes. And when it comes to his speech, recent interviews indicate there might be reference to supporting the “strivers” of this world, along with pleas for patience on economic growth.
Whether the speech will do enough to rally the right of the party, while convincing the public that the Conservatives are no longer “nasty” remains to be seen. But the Conservative leader certainly had some convincing to do among his own party – and not just among those on the right. Phillip Blond, proponent of the “red Tories” idea that was so popular back in 2009 and helped paved the way for policy guru Steve Hilton’s Big Society idea, said last week that the chance to redefine the Conservatives as something other than “reductive market liberalism” had already been lost.
“He [David Cameron] has surrendered No 10 to Treasury determination and become a creature of other people’s means rather than his own envisager of ends,” he wrote in the Guardian, “undermining the big society agenda from the very outset.”
Mr Blond is the director of the right of centre (but within the left of Conservative) think tank Respublica, formed in 2009. At the time, Mr Cameron said it was an “an exciting initiative which has arrived at a vital time”.
Respublica may have become less enamoured with Cameron’s Conservatism, but other think tanks have played a much more involved role – a result of coming up with more practical, relevant ideas and policies that have shaped the bedrock of Conservativism in 2012, says Jill Kirby Conservative Home columnist and former Centre for Policy Studies director.
“The Big Society idea was an example of something that didn’t translate away from think tanks to society – it was too abstract,” she told Channel 4 News.
However the Centre for Social Justice, set up by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, has been hugely influential in the government’s welfare reforms and the introduction of universal credit. Michael Gove’s radical education reforms, from free schools to new GCSEs, are largely driven by research from Policy Exchange and the New Schools Network.
“These two areas of reform were heavily crafted in the think tanks before Cameron came into coalition, which is quite a strong advertisement for their role,” Ms Kirby told Channel 4 News.
The Conservative Party has a long history of relationships with think tanks. Margaret Thatcher‘s free market ideas were influenced by the Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies, while the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) – one of the oldest think tanks – has a long association with the party.
But the coalition government, as well as the changing digital media landscape, has changed the role that they play, says Ruth Porter, communications director at the IEA.
“The formation of the coalition opened up public debate,” she told Channel 4 News. “The battle of ideas is going on in the public. Rather than having debates internally, you’ve got two parties, which are coalitions in themselves, so there are different, competing visions of society. It has opened up public space for debate.”
The extent of their influence has been criticised, mainly because think tanks are not obliged to declare their financial backing and with no accountability, they can effectively play a lobbying role in government. Another criticism is that they are more concerned with PR and creating media-friendly policies than they are with thorough, academic research.
Ms Porter, unsurprisingly, disagrees. “The greatest influence that think tanks can have is shaping public opinion,” she says. “The influence think tanks have on politicians is dependent on how well they influence the public debate. If the public aren’t convinced, then think tanks aren’t going to be able to persuade politicians.
“There’s no such thing as a neutral idea,” she adds. “Every concept is built on presuppositions about your idea about what society should look like.”
One solution to the criticism that think tanks are too separate from society and embedded in the Westminster bubble, is the model of the Conservative Home website, edited by Tim Montgomerie who is also co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice. “It’s a think tank that incorporates the grass roots, and that’s one of the reasons for its success as a movement, ” says Ms Kirby, who also happens to be one of its columnists.
Its recent campaign for an overhaul of the Conservative message towards a more “compassionate” conservativism has culminated in a website, video message, two-year plan and manifesto advocating a “deeper and more authentic modernisation”. And with links to the Conservative Home’s majority project, it will no doubt be watched by those at the top of the Tory party.
As well as an interesting evolution of the role of the think tank in shaping political party policy, it proves the new online think tank and forum for debate, “a force to be reckoned with,” adds Ms Kirby.