On Wednesday 26 November, we were fortunate to host a WonkComms event at our Southbank offices, bringing together a panel of hacks, wonks and wonkcomm-ers, to discuss the role of think tanks in the upcoming General Election.
Reporting from their experiences in the think tank trenches, we had Demos’ Sonia Sodha and the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Stephanie Lis, and giving an ‘inside-outside’ perspective from her experiences in charity campaigning was ActionAid’s Jenny Ricks. They were joined by Guardian political columnist, Rafael Behr, who gave a frank and fearless ‘sense-check’ of the challenges and opportunities available to think tanks, six months out from polling day.
There were three key themes and insights from the session:
1. How to Gain News Influence
Opening the floor, Rafael Behr explained the three types of news stories through which think tanks can generally appeal to the attentions of journalists:
- new research that offers an alarming finding;
- a call to action that everyone is aware that the Government cannot, or will not do – such as building on the green belt;
- or, somewhat less conventionally, by hosting a fringe event at party conferences where a senior figure becomes unexpectedly candid.
He explained how important it is when seeking to gain coverage that think tanks remember the occasionally conflicting relationship between the currency of their work and the currency of the news cycle. In this context, even the best research and analysis only cuts through when it aligns to the media or political agenda of the day, whether by filling a gap or reinforcing an existing narrative.
ActionAid’s Jenny Ricks explained how think tanks could benefit from the tactics often employed in charity campaigning, such as gaining more clout and attention through forming unexpected alliances with other groups – or traditional foes.
2. The Challenges and Opportunities of the New Political Landscape
All panellists agreed that the 2015 Election will be unique in featuring such a wide and diverse range of players. With the rising tide of interest in UKIP and the SNP – by both the media and the public at large – we have well and truly moved beyond a traditional two-party horse race dichotomy. There was also consensus around the fact that this is by no means a passing phenomenon, and that Britain should expect to see more and more minority verdicts and less dominance and stability from the traditional powers.
And yet, many think tanks continue to base their communications and research strategies around the demands and opportunities of operating within this more traditional landscape – which means it’s time to head back to the drawing board and engineer a new approach that reflects a better understanding and acceptance of the fact that the status quo no longer applies.
In the new political era, the focus on leadership has never been more important – and yet, as Rafael explained, much of the chaos and crisis of legitimacy facing the parties has resulted from the incapacity of parties to galvinise support around their leaders. The bad news for think tanks is that this has given rise to an enormous level of risk aversion and stymied their willingness to make tough or visionary policy decisions, which may make it more difficult to access and influence parties.
The panel and the audience alike queried whether the impact of think tanks was perhaps waning to some extent – or perhaps whether think tanks themselves were stepping back from the closeness they may have previously held with certain political figures. Certainly, some of the big players of the past have begun to look for more sustainable business models that rely less exclusively on the need for one particular party to hold power.
But there was a real sense that this new landscape isn’t all bad news for think tanks – indeed, that the sometimes disappointing level of political debate masks substantial gaps in the policy landscape that think tanks have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to fill. Sonia Sodha highlighted just some of the critical ideas and implementation plans missing from all parties’ Election campaigns, and explained how a lot is still up for grabs in terms of putting things on the agenda.
For his part, Rafael Behr questioned whether there was still room for new policy work when ‘the stage is largely set’, but he did identify an important fact-checking role ahead of the Election – calling on think tanks to be much more vocal in crunching the numbers and highlighting misleading or incorrect claims from all sides of politics.
And, given he expects the result to be a ‘catastrophe’ – an almost certain minority verdict with no clear victor – Behr also sees a longer-term opportunity for think tanks to help in the reimagining of statecraft that will inevitably follow. As citizens come to realise that their disillusionment with the parties means they will have to take more responsibility for the issues that matter to them, there will be a strong role for think tanks to play in bridging the gap between policy-making and people.
3. The Impacts of the Lobbying Act
The introduction of the Lobbying Act, legislated in January 2014, had many think tanks and charities running for cover, concerned of its potential impact on the capacity of civil society organisations to campaign and influence around important issues. However, two months into its ‘regulated period’, Jenny Ricks believes it is too early to tell as to whether the Act has had a “chilling effect” on the work of think tanks.
It appears the Act has created a lot of uncertainty due to the need to self-assess as to whether your organisation is obliged to register, and while Jenny counselled in favour of seeking specialised legal advice, the anecdotal evidence in the session seemed to suggest that many think tanks have ruled themselves out of applicability. In time, it will be regulatory and punitive measures through which any substantial behavioural change is likely to occur – and until these start to come to the surface, the impacts of the Act could be limited.