“You can’t move in SW1 without finding a new think-tank,” Michael Gove remarked last week - and he should know, he’s been at the launch of most of them.
The Defra Secretary has been part of a moveable feast of Tory Cabinet ministers, Downing Street advisors, ambitious backbenchers and decorated peers getting mildly giddy on free wine in various brightly-lit Westminster rooms in the past few weeks.
The Tory blob, followed by a media pack more than happy to feast on hors d’oeuvres while expanding their contacts book, are in pursuit of ideas to breath electoral life back into the centre-right of British politics.
Monday evening saw the the launch of Onward, a new think-tank hoping to help attracting younger voters to the Tory party.
A press release proclaimed Onward would seek “to build a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders,” and would be chaired by the Conservative peer Lord Finkelstein, with former Theresa May advisor acting as Will Tanner as director.
The unveiling came just a week after another think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, published a pamphlet of policy ideas put forward by young Tories.
The launch of ‘New Blue: Ideas For A New Generation’ – where Gove made his comments about the proliferation of think-tanks in Westminster – also saw a gathering of Tory high-flyers and fast-risers on the Parliamentary estate.
That guest list was very similar to the one for the inaugural get-together of Freer, an offshoot of the Institute of Economic Affairs, in March.
At that event, attended by, you guessed it, Michael Gove, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss called for a “Tory revolution” spearheaded by “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom-fighters”.
The growth of these “ideas factories” is fuelled by a Tory desire to renew themselves in Government. Bruised by the 2017 General Election, in which YouGov calculated under-47s are more likely to vote Labour than Tory, many MPs realise that unless they can appeal to younger voters the election after the next one could be disastrous.
Housing seems to be at the top of the list when it comes to attracting younger voters. Bim Afolami, Tory MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, used his chapter in ‘New Blue’ to call for a change to planning laws to incentivise communities to want new developments on their doorsteps.
Freer is likely to publish a paper later this year urging more building on green belt land in the south-east, while giving younger generations “the opportunity to get decent home of their own” is one of Onward’s key priorities.
In the debate around how the Tories can connect with younger voters, there is a lot of talk of returning to first principles – essentially that the state and government should get out of the way of people’s lives as much as possible.
As Truss and Gove both identified in speeches, younger generations seem to be comfortable with the entrepreneurial nature of businesses such as Deliveroo, Uber and Tinder – all of which flourish in the absence of state intervention.
But the brand of capitalism itself seems to be tainted. In his speech at the CPS pamphlet launch, Gove argued that for many of the younger generation, ‘capitalism’ is summed up by the 2008 financial crash, with those taking the gambles not pay the price. His words were met with nodding heads from those in the room.
Praising “free markets, free society, and free expression” in a joint essay, Freer co-chairs Luke Graham and Lee Rowley – both elected as MPs in 2017 – go on to say: “We must fight again for these timeless principles, which have spread prosperity, promoted aspiration, raised billions out of poverty, and have made us the most educated, healthy, and creative global generation ever to have lived.”
Another message that has already come out of the ideas factories is that Tories need to smile more, with Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson telling the gathered throng at the Onward launch: “Sometimes as Tories we just look a bit dour. We look a bit joyless, a bit authoritarian sometimes.”
But the elephant in the various Westminster rooms where these think-tanks and pamphlets have been launched is Brexit.
It’s been estimated that 73% of under-24s voted Remain in 2016. With the Tories steering the UK through the negotiations, a policy opposed by the vast majority of the younger generation will forever be associated with the Conservatives. And with young people potentially losing the right to live and work in 27 EU countries without a visa, the Tories will have to consider how to paint themselves as outward-looking and forward-thinking, not regressive and introspective – the very things the Conservatives accuse Jeremy Corbyn of.
HuffPost UK’s Guide to The Centre-Right ‘Ideas Factories’
Launched in 2002 by then-Tory MP Francis Maude and future MPs Michael Gove and Nick Boles, Policy Exchange is the think-tank most closely associated with Cameronism. It was considered influential on the education policy of the coalition Government, but a great deal of focus was on tackling extremism and military intervention overseas.
It has the power to attract top cabinet ministers to its events, and was chosen by Boris Johnson to hosts his Valentine’s Day ‘love bombing’ speech to Remainers.
What to say: “The problem with Tony Blair was he shouldn’t have just stopped with Iraq.”
What not to say: “Why is everyone leaving to go to that Onward party down the road?”
Pitching itself as a think-tank for “liberal conservatism”, Bright Blue sits comfortably in the 2005 to 2007-era of Cameroonism.
With a focus on environmentalism, overseas aid, social justice and state intervention to “correct market problems”, Bright Blue is certainly never going to be the think tank of choice for the Rees-Moggs of the Tory party.
The think-tank was founded in 2010 by Ryan Shorthouse, formerly a researcher for ex-Shadow Education Secretary David Willets, but it didn’t become fully established in the Westminster blood stream until after 2014.
Still very much a new-kid-on-the-block, Bright Blue holds ‘drink tank’ events with MPs in pubs around Westminster in a bid to foster political discussion in informal settings. Tories including Ruth Davidson, Liz Truss and Justine Greening are among those to appear at Bright Blue events.
What to say: “Let’s hug huskies who are wearing hoodies.”
What not to say: “Global warming? Load of old nonsense if you ask me.”
CENTRE FOR POLICY STUDIES
The home of Thatcherism, the Centre for Policy Studies was founded in 1974 by the future Prime Minister, alongside Tory MP Keith Joseph and journalist Alfred Sherman.
The CPS advocates the rolling back of the state through free market economics and light touch regulation. Its advisory board includes Sir Oliver Letwin, a member of Thatcher’s policy unit in the mid-1980s, and the Eurosceptic one-time leadership contender John Redwood.
With newer think tanks emerging, the CPS is attempting to reinvent itself in a bid to stay relevant. It has hired a squad of bright young Tory things - including former Tory press office Emma Barr; former advisor to Sajid Javid, Nick King; and ex-Downing Street policy wonk Alex Morton - to inject a more youthful edge to the 44-year-old organisation.
A pamphlet, ‘New Blue: Ideas For A New Generation’, was launched last week and featured policy proposals from the most recent batch of Tory MPs, including Bim Afolami, Andrew Bowie and Paul Masterton.
What to say: “The thing about Thatcher is she was actually a revolutionary.”
What not to say: “Let’s borrow more to build houses.”
ADAM SMITH INSTITUTE
In some ways, even more Thatcherite than the think tanks established by Thatcher, the Adam Smith Institute’s philosophy can be summed up as “privatise it, privatise it now.”
Established in 1977 by three former students from St Andrews University, the ASI played a key role in flying kites on major reforms of the public sector during the 1980s and beyond. Indeed, its call for the sell-off of Royal Mail in 1991 was heeded by Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable 22 years later in 2013.
After being at the top table during the Thatcher years, the ASI now finds itself more on the outside of Downing Street policy making. It is opposed to Theresa May’s energy bill price cap, saying it will make the market “even less competitive”.
The ASI has an active youth wing, known as “The Next Generation”, which holds monthly meetings featuring speeches from MPs and journalists.
If the ASI wants to find itself making the political weather once more, it could do worse than looking across at the CPS and trying to find a way to repackage its self-proclaimed ‘neo-liberalism’ to appeal to younger voters.
What to say: “Privatising schools would drive up standards and make us more competitive.”
What not to say: “Perhaps we shouldn’t have nationalised the railways?”
INSTITUTE OF ECONOMIC AFFAIRS
Along with the CPS and ASI, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is closely associated with the Thatcherite economic revolution of the 1980s. Formed in 1955 by businessman Antony Fisher, the IEA boasts an impressive history of influencing free market thinking in the UK.
It’s current Director General, Mark Littlewood, was formerly head of media for the Lib Dems, and was decidedly pro-European. By the time of the EU Referendum, he had made an about-face and advocated Leave.
The IEA is not purely focused on economics, and is punchy when it comes to opposing interventionist policies such as the sugar tax and banning junk food advertising.
News Editor Kate Andrews is fast becoming one of the most recognisable faces on UK politics shows, showing that free market economics does indeed appeal to some under 30s.
What to say: “Do you know how many EU regulations there are for making a pillow? 109!”
What not to say: “Have you seen how much sugar is in this drink? Something must be done!”
CENTRE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
As the name suggests, this think tank focuses less on the economy and more on society. Formed by Iain Duncan Smith in 2004 a year after being ousted as Tory leader, the Centre for Social Justice helped inform his policies as Work and Pensions Secretary from 2010 to 2016, doing much of the theoretical legwork on Universal Credit.
The CSJ works hard to appeal across the political divide, and worked with Labour MPs to campaign for a reduction in the top stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.
What to say: “I’ve just been to a genuine council estate and saw trainers thrown over a power line.”
What not to say: “Have you seen this new roulette app on my phone?”
One of the more low-key think tanks in Westminster, but Politeia’s influence is hard to overstate.
Formed in 1995, it became a forum for eurosceptics to exchange ideas, and helped keep the anti-EU flame alive during the 2000s.
Far less showy than many of the other think-tanks, many in Westminster aren’t even aware of its influence, but those wishing to get an insight into the technical aspects of leaving the EU and what hard Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees Mogg are up to should pop along to one of its events, frequently held just north of St James’ Park.
What to say: “Why hasn’t Brexit happened yet?”
What not to say: “Why is Brexit happening?”