Think tanks at a crossroad: adapt or be replaced

Vantage Point is a Cast From Clay series on how think tanks are perceived from the outside.


Marie Le Conte is a freelance political journalist based in London. She writes about Westminster for a wide range of publications including Prospect magazine, the New Statesman, WIRED and GQ, and frequently appears on television and radio. Her book, Haven’t You Heard? Gossip, Politics and Power, is out now. 

The past few years have not been kind to think tanks. In fact, it nearly was a perfect storm, between a government that had a majority until it didn’t, an opposition that viewed the mainstream with suspicion, and a national debate on which no two MPs could agree.

There is a world in which Brexit could have been a bountiful time for policy brains, as seismic changes often call for new ideas and bold visions for the future. Similarly, a minority government could have encouraged sharp cross-party thinking, born out of necessity but useful to organisations unwilling to take a side.

Instead, Parliament became so fractious, chaotic and unstable that there was no space for anyone to have any real impact. This changed in December last year, when the Conservatives gained a stomping majority and promised to (finally) get Brexit done, then again in April, when Labour elected a leader keener to engage with traditional Westminster structures.

Sadly, the coronavirus had hit Britain by the time the latter happened, taking all the oxygen out of British politics once more. Still, the desire to build a new Britain which should have come out of Brexit is now finally making itself known. From the environment and housing to education and the future of work, all sides are clamouring for change, and yearning to build a new, better society post-pandemic.

This should be good news for think tanks, who exist to provide ideas and policies to those running the country or hoping to do so soon. They also tend to thrive in stabler political times, because it gives them a chance to either build deep links with a party or a faction, establish themselves as the experts in one specific policy area, or even both.

In fact, it could even be argued that the work think tanks provide is needed in the public sphere now more than ever, after years of misinformation and clashes between blindly ideological politicians. Having had enough of experts for a while, is Britain now ready for a return to evidence-based policymaking?

“Having had enough of experts for a while, is Britain now ready for a return to evidence-based policymaking?”

Perhaps not. Westminster’s identity crisis did not happen in a vacuum and, if anything, was representative of the breaking down of trust and dialogue in the polity at large. Culture wars have been raging in Britain and abroad, every issue no matter how small can and will become polarising, and arguing in good faith is a concept so quaint it now sounds old-fashioned.

The reasons for this are numerous and the topic of another piece altogether, but among them we can count the rise of social media, and everything it entails. Though many calls have been made for a return to political parties anchoring their policy decisions in concrete evidence and expert advice, it is easier said than done.

For a start, there is now too much – too much information, too much data, too much expertise, real and shoddy. “Evidence- based policymaking” can only exist as a concept if we collectively agree on what evidence to trust, and that no longer seems to be possible. From the climate emergency to the necessity of wearing masks to stop the coronavirus spread, even issues that should be clear-cut now have sides pretending to be backed by “facts”.

Though it would be counter-productive to pretend that we once lived in a world where everyone believed in the sanctity of objective data, it is true that it is now especially possible to pick a side on an issue, and only then decide what evidence to trust. It is equally easy to adopt the language and appearance of wonks to promote dangerous and false ideas, as Steve Bannon has done with the Government Accountability Institute, a “think tank” largely pushing conspiracy theories about Democrats.

“… to put it bluntly, voters aren’t overly worried about whether something is evidence-based or not”

Then there is the fact that, to put it bluntly, voters aren’t overly worried about whether something is evidence-based or not. As new research from Cast from Clay found, nearly 50% of people agreed with the statement “Politicians place too much emphasis on evidence and not enough on instinct and common sense”. Under 20% disagreed. Similarly, just under half of respondents agreed that “facts and stats should be less important than common sense in politics”, while 20% disagreed.

Though the idea that think tanks should ride the online wave and stop confining themselves to the Westminster bubble has gained some traction, them doing so effectively would have to involve a solid rethink. Sadly, there are no easy answers.

That being said, there are different avenues think tanks can explore if they wish to play a part in post-Covid Britain. The first is the time-honoured tradition of hitching their wagon to a part or a faction. We seem to be headed towards more traditional times in Parliament, which can enable them to gain a foothold in their preferred corner of the Commons.

After all, a lot of think tanks are unapologetically left or right wing, and now doesn’t seem to be the time to try and reinvent oneself. Their ideas may never be taken seriously by the other side, but that never hurt the IEA in the 1980’s or the IPPR in the 1990’s. Tribal times call for tribal wonks, and there is no shame in joining the fight.

Another way to approach it could be to get out in order to get back in, as well as becoming laser focused in terms of output. Instead of spreading themselves too thin, think tanks should aim to become the go-to for one specific policy area, ideally in a way that doesn’t stray into party politics. In this scenario, social media and the online sphere can be harnessed to garner influence, hopefully leading eventually to parliamentary impact.

After all – and to end on a positive note – we do live in interesting times, and ones which have brought unlikely bedfellows together. From Brexit to the pandemic, organisations usually found on opposite sides have been joining forces on issues concerning the nation. The recent example was in April, when the CBI and the TUC issued a joint statement on the health and safety of workers.

We also shouldn’t forget that the Conservative benches are so swollen because they count many new MPs who just about won heartlands Labour seats in 2019, and will be keen to keep them. That intake should be more amenable to policies not usually found on the right than others.

“… the days of evidence-based policymaking never really existed and, even if they did, they are most definitely over”

In short: there is little use in arguing that think tanks should fight to get back to the days of evidence-based policymaking, both because they never really existed and, even if they did, they are most definitely over. This does not mean that think tanks should pack up and go home, far from it; once the virus is tamed, their expertise will be needed more than ever.

Instead, they will need to adapt, and probably adapt some more in a few years when times and technology have changed again. Think tanks have never been known for their agility, but they do not have a choice; if they fail, there are chancers dressed in their clothes already waiting to replace them.

Watch political journalist Marie Le Conte talk through her article, Think Tanks at a Crossroad: Adapt or Be Replaced, the first in our new series looking at how think tanks are perceived from the outside.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Privacy and Cookie policy