There is growing awareness that the right is fighting back in the battle of ideas. On Tuesday ConservativeHome highlighted the extent to which Labour has been copying Tory ideas. Alistair Darling was correctly dubbed ‘Mr Magpie’
after his pre-Budget statement. As David Cameron said at yesterday’s
PMQs, the Conservatives are beginning to look like the future and
Gordon Brown is certainly looking like the past. Waiting for him to
unpack his vision is proving to be a very long wait indeed. This week’s Economist concludes that the Conservatives are looking like the party of optimism and aspiration.
It’s important that we don’t get carried away, however. George
Osborne may have forced Darling-Brown into one very welcome £1bn tax cut but
the Shadow Chancellor has committed the Conservatives to match a £37bn
real increase* in public spending. A three year increase that is being financed by a massive
underlying increase in stealthy taxation. Mr Osborne had more or less
given up arguing for the dynamic effects of lower taxation. Will he revisit that decision? Unlikely. Things are
beginning to tilt back our way but only after a prolonged slide in
the other direction.
Across the world most conservative/ centre right parties are
embracing bigger government but it’s not all bad news. American
conservatives can claim welfare reform and zero tolerance policing as
two huge victories for the centre right and for the idea that the right is now the true home of progress. [Britain still needs to import both of those ideas.] I also am hopeful that – when
it comes to the environment – the centre right belief in technological
solutions will eventually trump tax-and-control greenery.
In this context it’s worth considering the health of Britain’s centre right think tanks. Prospect Magazine has just announced that the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research is its 2007 think tank of the year. The second time that the IPPR has won the award. Last year’s winner was the right-leaning Policy Exchange. Another leftist think tank – the Centre for European Reform – won this year’s international award. Prospect gave its bias away, however, when David Walker, the chair of its judging panel, described CER as "an island of sobriety in the midst of Eurosceptic froth"!
I’m biased (I helped found the CSJ) but I’m disappointed that the Centre for Social Justice wasn’t even shortlisted by Prospect. It has grown very fast since its launch in 2004 and has just produced the incredibly impressive Breakthrough Britain report. Its recommended solutions to poverty have become a central feature of Project Cameron and I predict that many of BB’s 188 policy ideas will be snatched by the many Magpies on the Labour frontbenches before too long. [It won’t be the first time]. The TaxPayers’ Alliance should also have been a leading candidate for the award. Its campaigns have helped to make lower taxation fashionable again. Guido gives the TPA’s Matthew Elliott credit for highlighting the unpopularity of IHT and for making a deep impression on the Shadow Treasury Team. And, internationally, why the CER? Open Europe’s powerful campaigning for a referendum has surely been more impactful?
In his remarks to the Prospect awards event, David Walker challenged some of the centre right think tanks to band together. He suggested the "policy impact" might be greater if they achieved "critical mass". I think that’s worth reflecting upon. There are too many centre right think tanks/ campaigning organisations. They all have to fund separate secretarial budgets. They don’t enjoy any economies of scale on fundraising, web strategy or premises. If there was some consolidation there might be more scope for investment in empirical research. One leading member of the shadow cabinet told me that the current centre right think tank scene needed to radically increase its investment in such research. There have been attempts at consolidation in recent years but they came to nothing when the discussions were at executive level. It will probably take a push from donors to force the issue. It may be time to dedicate a little more time to the organisation of centre right thinking. It may be time to rethink how think tanks engage with the public square. Watch this space!
* UK public spending will be £626bn by 2010/11 compared to £589bn in 2007/08 (in 2007/08 prices).
11.15am: Danny Finkelstein has come to George Osborne’s defence on spending here.