Think Tanks and the Election: The Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2019 Conservative Landslide
As the results rolled in on the night of the 2019 General Election, Labour Party mandarins could only stare in disbelief as ‘safe’ Labour seat after safe Labour seat fell to the Tories. As Labour’s traditional heartlands gradually turned blue, political commentators soon began to talk of the fall of the ‘Red Wall’. Some constituencies — Blyth Valley amongst them — elected Conservative MPs for the first time since their creation on some of the largest swings of the evening. Inevitably, blame was quick to be apportioned. Fingers were pointed at an ambiguous Brexit policy, the ‘first past the post’ voting system and a public dislike of Jeremy Corbyn. Whatever the root cause, the end result was the Labour Party’s largest defeat since 1935, and the greatest Conservative victory since Thatcher’s in 1987.
Yet there was more than one winner and one loser in this election. Behind both of the great parties lie a network of think tanks, shaping opinion and promoting one policy idea or another to an attentive audience of journalists, politicians and academics. The election of a right-wing, Eurosceptic government represents just as much of a victory or defeat (depending on their alignment) to these organisations as it does for any parliamentarian.
Foremost amongst the victors are the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). The IEA is Britain’s oldest neoliberal think-tank and has found champions at the highest levels of government in the forms of Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary. Their position at the right hand of the Prime Minister in the wake of a resounding electoral victory is a huge boost for the IEA, which had faced criticism over its links to ‘Big Tobacco’ and general opaqueness around funding. That said, one of its principle ideas — the privatisation of the NHS — was a clear red line for the vast majority of British voters. If Boris Johnson and the Conservatives want to capitalise on and entrench their support in newly acquired constituencies, it is a line they cannot cross. Despite this, the IEA emerged foremost of all think tanks as the clearest winner in this election.
A close runner up is the European Research Group (ERG), that has had its fair share of wilderness years and now basks in the spotlight once more. Originally founded in 1993 on the single issue of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, Jacob Rees-Mogg prominently led the party to the mainstream in the build-up to the Brexit referendum. The ERG boasts a number of high-level ministerial supporters, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary, as well as other influential figures within the Conservative Party. Britain’s exit from the European Union on the 31st January will mark a total vindication of everything it has been lobbying for the past 26 years. The only question is what will become of the group now that this objective has been achieved.
Other right wing think tanks that will be delighted by the victory are the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), named eponymously after the Scottish moral philosopher and classical economist. As a think tank advocating free markets and classically liberal ideas around the right of the public to choose, its broad alignment with the objectives of the IEA mean that we can expect it to play a more prominent role in policy making under the current government.
On the left of the political spectrum, several think tanks and lobby groups are likely to be downbeat at the election defeat. The Fabian Society, which has long proved a pillar of the Labour Party and has existed since 1884, will no doubt be mourning the wasted opportunity of a genuinely socialist democratic leader coming to power. Having issued a statement calling for a post-mortem of Labour’s manifesto, they have some reason to look forward to a more positive future as Keir Starmer, a firm Fabian, looks set to become party leader.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) will also be downcast at the result. Having enjoyed a revival and shift further left under the leadership of Tom Kibasi, some commentators (Owen Jones amongst them) looked to the IPPR to provide the academic backdrop to a radical socialist government. The chances of that government annihilated by the election result, the IPPR will need to consider whether it reverts to a more centrist view or continues its march leftward.
Momentum, a radical socialist pressure group founded in 2015 in support of Jeremy Corbyn that has since come to dominate much of the Labour Party apparatus, must of course take its fair share of blame for the election result. After lobbying for a candidate who proved fatally unpopular with the core of Labour Party voters, it looks as if Momentum has failed to learn its lessons; choosing to back a Corbynite continuity candidate for Labour leader in the shape of Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Newer and lesser known think tanks have also quietly made their mark, amongst them the Institute for Youth Policy (IYP). This misleadingly named think tank — given that its raison d’etre is the economic advancement of adults, albeit young ones — has entered the fringes of the mainstream through an unlikely combination of student support and interest from crossbench peers. Despite this unusual route to publicity, it represents a departure from the name-calling and identity politics that have long plagued millennial political thought. More interestingly, several of its policy proposals (stamp duty increases for overseas property buyers, TV licence fee decriminalisation) have quietly crept onto the Conservative Party agenda. In contrast, left-wing think tank Common Wealth — founded in 2019 to flesh out Corbynite nationalisation policies — suffered a blow at the election result and the rebuttal to it’s cause célèbre.
One final think tank that at least can walk away from the election with a sense of vindication, albeit forlorn, is of course Blue Labour. This Eurosceptic think tank has long held that the only way for the Labour Party to win back working-class voters is through socially conservative ideas on specific social and international issues, Brexit amongst them. With the collapse of Labour support on a scale unprecedented since the first half of the 20th century, it seems reasonable to suggest this particular group may see a revival. It is impossible to read Blue Labour’s election review, entitled ‘All hail Good King Boris’, without getting a sense of a pervasive ‘I told you so’ attitude bordering on jubilation.
The United Kingdom is a nation in flux. As the SNP claim more seats in Scotland than ever before and nationalist MPs outnumber unionist ones in Northern Ireland for the first time, the huge challenge of leaving the European Union in an orderly fashion looms larger than ever. It is against this backdrop that new policies are needed more than ever before, both to maintain the integrity of the union and to help Britain prosper outside of the EU. The think tanks with the most influence will have a major part in shaping our future.