Simon Jenkins, you’re wrong. Think tanks don’t need to think again

Think tanks both within the Labour Party and more broadly in British politics have a vital role to play.

Millie Clarke is a member of the Young Fabians

A warning shot was fired at Ed Miliband on Monday by key Labour think tanks and political leaders from across the movement. Those who signed the letter were trying to ensure that Ed Miliband did not abandon a bold policy agenda for the 2015 election.

The letter prompted a reactionary comment piece in the Guardian in response by Simon Jenkins.

In his article, Jenkins argues that because think tanks tend to use abstract or conceptual language, their ideas are irrevelant. He also suggests that they are detached from the needs of crucial swing voters and “need to be packed off to marginal constituencies to lick envelopes and tramp on doors to be back in touch with reality”.

Jenkins misses the point. Think tanks both within the Labour Party and more broadly in British politics have a vital role to play. His idea that think tank policy reads like “a spoof leaflet for a student demo” overlooks the fact that think tanks have changed the face of modern Britain.

While Jenkins takes issue with the flowery language used by think tanks, their ideas echo precisely the concerns I heard last weekend whilst campaigning for John Howard, who is running to be a local councillor in the key marginal seat, Ilford North. I saw first-hand voter apathy, and heard about how people felt disconnected from local government.

Key concerns raised included the construction of a local swimming pool and fixing pot-holes in the road. In 2012 the Fabians launched a major new research project looking at how Labour could gain their next majority. Meanwhile recent Policy Network research has focussed on decentralising control to local councils so they can better improve services.

The second reason Jenkins’ article is problematic is that it positions think tanks as oligarchs. This point again misses the mark. Three of the largest signatories in Monday’s letter, Progress, the Fabian Society and Compass, are membership organisations with democratic routes.

In his Guardian piece, Jenkins also says the letter “sets a new low in party loyalty”.

However, you can’t be a member of many of the co-signatories of this letter, including Progress and the Fabian Society, without being a Labour Party member too. Therefore, these organisations all have a stake in the future success of the Party.

Think tanks are meant to be critical friends, it would be dangerous for Miliband to, in Jenkin’s words, be given a “smack of discipline”.

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