Think tanks and the UK general election: who lost, who won and who decided not to play?

7 July 2015
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published at Think Tank Review. This reflection on how think tanks did in the UK General Election 2015 is a valuable contribution to On Think Tanks’ series on think tanks and elections around the world,]

The Prospect prize for Think Tank of the Year was awarded on Tuesday. In preparation for the event, I prepared a delayed assessment of how think tanks did in the election. First, a caveat: unlike the Prospect awards, these rankings are for comms only. How and why policy came about and who influenced it is very hard to say, and except in very specific cases I’m not even sure if the think tanks know themselves. You can claim as many “policy victories” as you like, but that doesn’t make it true. (Although when the Conservative manifesto was announced, it did seem like most of it had appeared previously on the Policy Exchange website…) Anyway back to the ranking. Rather than making a full league, I’ve split the think tanks up into four different groups. Then we’ll finish with a top five, and the winner will be the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Group One: “Voluntary Purdah”

Elections are tricky times for think tanks. You’d think they’d be in their element, but very often they struggle to know what to do. All the policy decisions have been taken, at least officially. (Either that or they’re being cobbled together at the last minute by small cohorts of “intellectual allies.”) Politicians are out shaking hands and taking selfies with babies. Everything, but everything, is postponed until “after the election,” that magical time when meetings will be had, emails will be answered, and organisation will reign once more. But… it’s the most political time of the year, the one time when people are really paying attention, so you’ve got to something. At least, you’d think you’d have to do something…

That was Reform’s last message, before they went dark — for the entire campaign. Not a report, not a tweet, not a blog post. Total shutdown. And they weren’t the only ones. Lots of other think tanks took a similar approach, although without quite Reform’s monastic devotion to silence. Two weeks into the campaign, we complained that “at the one time people are most engaged in politics, think tanks are eerily silent.” Think tanks perked up a bit after the manifestos appeared, but almost without exceptions this was a period of limited output.

By the way, on that Reform tweet: think tanks aren’t prohibited by election law from taking part in the campaign, merely from making statements that could be construed as party political. (For a more detailed explanation see this discussion.) Reform were making a tactical withdrawal, as deputy director Richard Harries confirmed when I spoke to him. Having assessed the rewards of being involved in the campaign versus the risk of annoying a potential partner, Reform simply decided that, on balance, it was better to stay quiet.

Group Two: “Doing It Our Own Way”

Conventional wisdom says there’s no point releasing a report during the campaign. No-one’s listening… it’ll get swamped… no-one reads them anyway (not that that ever stopped anyone.) But it might actually be an excellent time, if only because no-one else is doing it.

Leading the charge for this approach: Centre for Policy Studies, who received excellent coverage for their Real Finnish Lessons: The true story of an education superpower, despite the fact that it was released right in the middle of the campaign. It can be done.

Group Three: “Dipping A Toe”

The thinking: “We have to get involved with the election, but we don’t want to piss anyone off. Let’s do something big picture. Visual too. Something with data…?”

Cut to: Nesta’s Political Futures Tracker. Working with the University of Sheffield, Nesta employed ‘ground breaking language analysis methods’ to provide bite sized summaries of the top themes in the manifestos. It was solid work, but for all the fancy software, it didn’t feel very different from that old comms classic, the word cloud. And from the point of view of the election, it seemed to be dabbling at the edges rather than getting stuck into the muddy waters of the debate.

A similar hesitancy could be seen in the blogposts of those two grandees of the left, Nick Pierce of IPPR and Matthew Taylor of the RSA. Much of the appeal of these excellent commentators is their ability to step outside the narrow frame of policy and politicking, but during the election their blogs were more abstruse than usual. Pierce wrote a piece about the SNP which reached all the way back to 1885. Taylor largely ignored the election and even called (not unreasonably) for the campaign to be suspended for two months.

Both Pierce and Taylor used to work for the Labour Party, but both head up independent think tanks —yes, IPPR is officially independent — so they couldn’t exactly come out and say, “Vote Labour.” But what were they to do instead? This is the question think tanks have to answer in an election year. The ones that came up with a developed response are the ones that did best in the campaign.

Group Four: The Winners

Now things start to get interesting…

5.  Local Government Information Unit — Bit of a sneaky one this, as they didn’t do much on the general election, but they did cover the “other” election. Remember the local election that also happened on 7 May? If you wanted information on that, LGIU was the place to go. Maybe I’m biased, because Think Tank Review works with LGIU, but for me this is exactly the kind of public service I like my think tanks to provide.

4. Institute for Government — Fourth, but could do better. They have the resources, the expertise and the standing to really shape the debate, but they restrict themselves to commentary on constitutional matters. As IFS showed, you can be respected and opinionated. Still, if you want to understand the precise ramifications of the Fixed Parliament Act, there’s no better place than IfG.

3. Demos — Is Jamie Bartlett the most interesting think tanker in the country? He writes brilliant books, he’s satisfyingly wonky, and he’s Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM), whose tweet-counting dashboards were all over this election. Now we know the result, it turns out that Twitter is even worse at predicting elections than traditional polls – but from a comms perspective this was a triumph. It turned the general interest in politics into a funding stream for an exciting data experiment, and won CASM yards of coverage and a feature-sized slot in The Sunday Times. Very few other think tanks could have done what IfG did, but in theory any think tank could have produced a CASM. Demos, and Jamie Bartlett, actually did — and to my mind that’s more impressive.

2. Full Fact – If they aren’t a think tank, then what are they? They may not be offering policy prescriptions themselves, but if they wanted to they could hardly be in a better position. Many think tanks do explainers (King’s Fund did an absolutely spectacular infographic one on the NHS) but on immigration in particular Full Fact became essential reading — you would go to their website as a matter of course, expecting to find the facts checked and explained in clear, impartial language.

1. Institute for Fiscal Studies — Last time round, the IFS dominated the campaign to such an extent the government poached its Chief Exec. I wonder what Robert Chote was thinking, as criticism of the Office of Budget Responsibility rumbled away in the background, while his successor Paul Johnson assumed the kind of high priest status normally afforded to American Presidents and presenters on the Today programme. This is what the kids call killing it. Even the Telegraph wrote them love letters. And it’s not as if they were pulling their punches either: they criticised all and sundry, and the parties meekly accepted it.

Can they do it again? Well, most think tanks are still debating whether or not to join the race. As any politician would tell you, to win, you have to take part.