Conservative Home has criticised Labour councils for funding Labour allies in the think tank world using public funds. Civil service officials have criticised Steve Hilton’s proposal to contract out policy development to think tanks. Both Conservative Home and the civil service are, I believe, mistaken on this. There is both a public and a party interest in ensuring councils are appropriately prepared to implement large scale changes in how they commission services and can manage the politics of institutional change.
Our obsession with the cost of advisors and policy consultancy is misguided. This expenditure costs thousands. Individual councils spend hundreds of millions. We suffer when right of centre councils invest too little in policy research. No council is an island entire of itself; each is part of the main. Even the best Conservative councils are not immune to the national political pendulum. They are part of a broader Conservative movement which sinks or swims together. Investing in policy development helps Conservative parties in opposition to fight back. It helps our councils retain power.
Without investment, policy changes can be poorly implemented or piecemeal. Suffolk County Council created a big picture vision of how to change their council. They did not invest in the external policy oversight that might have informed them how to implement this plan. They did not identify and manage the political risks.
Suffolk could have bitten the bullet and invested a few hundred thousand into appropriate policy support early on. Instead they launched their big picture vision seemingly unprepared for people to ask practical questions about how this would work. The vision fell apart. Political pressure resulted in the resignation of the Chief Executive and the council leader, their replacement, and a U-turn on the proposed policy changes.
Left wing politicians understand the need to nurture their research base. Left leaning policy bodies are granted public contracts that support these organisations continued existence and expansion. Left of centre councils, trade unions and their allies in the charitable and voluntary sectors are investing heavily in a narrative that spending cuts inevitably lead to worse services. Each report they produce helps build this campaign. The level of investment and their long term commitment delivers dividends.
Many of their politically correct causes have been achieved over time. In the 1980’s the Conservatives mocked ‘loony Labour’ councils that advocated such things as legal discrimination against white males, restrictions on freedoms of speech and religion, multiculturalism and the establishment of parallel societies among ethnic minorities and the promotion of one parent and same sex parent households. Left of centre councils, trade unions and quasi charities devoted considerable resources to achieve these aims.
Today, many of these policies have become accepted by Conservative authorities. Conservative candidates are vetted for their support of some of these positions, some have been sent to re-education classes to ensure compliance with politically correct positions. Whether you think these policies are right or wrong the left have been successful in enforcing them.
We need to counter the anti-cuts narrative. Conservative councils should invest in showing how lower spending can actually improve services.
We should fund reports highlighting the costs of the Equality and Human Rights Commission which monitors the requirement to conduct equality impact assessments for each council policy and has sought to legally challenge councils which do not implement aspects of its agenda. We need to challenge environmental policies such as the landfill tax which costs councils millions every year. We need to assess the costs of providing trade union facilitation time in councils. We should compare council’s expenditure on council pensions and local council tax levels. If Conservative councils won’t finance the production of this research it is less likely to occur. If it does not occur then it will not form part of the debate.
The closest the right has come to providing what is needed is the TaxPayers’ Alliance (tpa). This fine organisation does admirable work exposing council waste (I used to work for them) but its impact on local policy making is minimal. This is not a criticism of the tpa. It is a campaign organisation and is not set up to write each councils manifesto or oversee implementation of a policy agenda.
There is a way of funding this work without increasing public expenditure. Conservative authorities devote considerable resources to the Local Government Association. This offers a little prestige to council leaders and conducts some lobbying support on behalf of councils but offers few policy benefits. If all of these funds were diverted to fund appropriate research our cause would be massively aided with no extra public cost.
In America, researchers can invest in developing their skills confident that a job at the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution or Cato could provide a fulfilling career. The American right woke up to the need to invest in policy research. This has helped fundamentally shift the terms of debate. People can build a career being the right of centre expert on issues our think tanks deem marginal.
The British right needs to build a broad base of localist research organisations. We need more experts on issues such as the environment, equalities issues, public pensions, social care, housing and development and elections administration etc. Considerable talent is lost to right of centre think tanks if their brightest individuals come to believe that career advancement and a decent wage can only be found outside the sector.
British think tanks need to be able to offer their employees a recognised and respected career path. This will encourage employees to invest in their skills and it will make them better advocates of Conservative causes.
While working at Conservative Central Office I grew to admire the professionalism of many of our policy teams but the Conservative Local Government and Northern Ireland teams stood out in particular. Both contained policy experts who had devoted their entire professional lives to these subjects. They knew the tricks that the bureaucracies play and how to counter them. They knew which policies had been tried ten years before, if they had been successful or failed and why. They were an invaluable resource.
It is no surprise to see that Local Government has been one of the most successful and radical areas of this Government. We have a skilled advisor helping make policy that has been doing the job for ten years or more.
Starved of investment right of centre think tanks are condemned to being small scale. They can often become merely a vehicle for their founders’ political ambition. You set up a think tank, release three reports, become an MP and your creation then withers and dies. Few consider being head of a think tank to be the summit of their career. Right leaning think tanks face a funding dilemma. Some become the plaything of one or two wealthy individuals. Other organisations come to rely on big corporations for funding. This can skew their policy focus. There is nothing inherently wrong with it. The Serco event on prisons may deliver some important insights but the problem with this funding base is that it ensures the left are given free rein in areas that are not of commercial concern or the obsession of a lone multi-millionaire.
Our lack of investment in localist policymaking also fails to recognise the inbuilt advantage the left has – local council officers and civil servants tend to be politically left of centre. Bureaucrats ensure that while Conservative administrations come and go the left wing establishment remains eternal. Bureaucracies can sit on policy changes until the Conservative administration is voted out of office, at which point these polices will be jettisoned. They can leak information to political allies mounting campaigns against the changes. They can suggest council cuts aimed at the areas that damage the incumbent party most. Council leaders who refuse to pay for policy support and advice will fall for at least some of these tricks.
Some say that all council policy making should be done by existing council staff. This ensures some important issues will never be looked at. Council bureaucracies have little interest in undertaking research that pinpoints the inherent inefficiencies in their ways of working.
National pay bargaining’s effect on local economies will not considered. The cost to the local populace of defined contribution pensions will not be assessed. There will be few reports on how a private company could perform a policy function for twenty per cent less and do it better. Investment in research on these topics which costs thousands could save the public sector billions providing better services and lower taxes. Opposing public investment on this research to save money is laughable.
We need to look at how we can improve commissioning and expand the role of the private sector in providing essential public services. We need to highlight the costs both human and financial of the existing ways of working. This is not fun, it is not a hobby, and we should not expect people to do it for free. Research costs money. The left recognise this fact and an entire industry has been created churning out leftist research. We need to respond to this.
The Conservatives currently dominate local government. A few more local election drubbings and this will no longer be so. What will their legacy be? That each Conservative council spends fifty thousand pounds less on policy support (than its Labour peers) for a few years or building an energised localist Conservative movement producing ground-breaking ideas on how to deliver better public services at a lower cost?
It is time for Conservative councils to invest public funds in Conservative localist policy development. As conservatives we should always value economy with taxpayer's money, but not economies leading to poor and ideologically unsound advice that eventually costs taxpayers far more.
The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.