The new wonkocracy: Who are the think tanks shaping Labour policy?

Political parties are gearing up for a general election next year and think tanks are busy trying to exert influence on their manifestos and beyond. With polls pointing to a Labour victory, Chaminda Jayanetti considers the organisations – some new, some familiar – which are helping to shape the policies of Keir Starmer and the shadow cabinet

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When New Labour limbered up for its 1997 landslide, it came armed with an agenda that had clearly been shaped by Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research, two think tanks with senior figures who later joined the incoming government. A decade later, Policy Exchange played a similar role for David Cameron’s Conservatives. 

Labour’s shattering 2019 defeat meant the resourcing and staffing of left-leaning think tanks tightened for a while, under the assumption of another decade of Tory power. But with the party’s electoral prospects transforming since then, progressive think tanks are scrambling to set out an agenda for a Labour government – arguably the most influential of them, Labour Together, having built itself up amid the ashes of election defeat.

Labour Together consolidated centrist support for Keir Starmer’s leadership bid and has since rapidly evolved into an overtly political think tank, its non-charitable status allowing it to work explicitly with Labour. 

Led by Josh Simons, who resigned as an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn in protest at his failure to tackle antisemitism, its team also includes data and polling expert Christabel Cooper as director of research, and speechwriter and strategist Josh Williams as deputy director. In a sign of its influence, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves wrote a report for Labour Together in May setting out her agenda for economic security and a more activist state.

“When we’re thinking about policy, we’re doing it very much with ‘what is the best policy that will also get Labour elected?’” Cooper says. Labour Together has identified two voter groups in England and Wales that the party needs to win – ‘Workington Man’, an economically statist, socially conservative ‘red wall’ archetype, and ‘Stevenage Woman’, who fits with the median voter on most issues. Scotland, where the often left-leaning SNP vote has fractured in recent months, was not covered.

“Whenever we make any policy recommendations, we are doing a bunch of polling first that says, ‘is this going to fly with those target voter groups, or is this just a nice idea but it’s not actually going to help Labour get elected?’” Cooper says. 

Labour Together originates its own research topics and also takes cues from the Labour leadership. Economic security, planning reform, public preferences on devolved services, and strategies towards female voters are among its current focus points – Brexit, Cooper says, is not. Given its small core team, it brings in outside experts to work on specific projects. 

“We’re not going off and doing things that we don’t think are going to be helpful to the leadership,” she adds. “We want to be making a case for the politics that we think can win the next election.”

If Labour Together – with its ruthless targeting – is a very political operation, the 35-year-old IPPR has a slower-burning influence, seeing its role as “shaping the climate of ideas around politics”, in the words of its director of research and engagement Harry Quilter-Pinner.

As a charity, the IPPR is barred from being party political, and it builds relationships with politicians from across the spectrum. But its impact within Labour – assisted by its tendency to reflect the changing politics of Labour leaders over time – is long-standing. Its Commission on Social Justice, headed by a young David Miliband, helped shape New Labour’s policies in the mid-90s. 

Labour insiders confirm the IPPR’s influence on the party’s economic growth agenda, which bears the hallmarks of Bidenomics. Quilter-Pinner points to its Environmental Justice Commission, which recommended £30bn of annual green transition investment in July 2021 – two months before Reeves committed to spending £28bn a year.

“They might not have literally copied and pasted stuff, but they are definitely reflecting a current in the intellectual thought that IPPR, alongside other organisations in this space, have been shaping on the progressive wing of politics,” he says.

“Think tanks can be an incredibly useful resource, providing capacity to help work up detailed policy implementation” Shadow minister

Other than Quilter-Pinner, the think tank’s key figures in relation to Labour include George Dibb, head of the IPPR’s Centre for Economic Justice, Luke Murphy, associate director for the energy, climate, housing and infrastructure team – both of whom focus on the economy and environment – and Melanie Wilkes, associate director for work and the welfare state. 

As a charity, the IPPR does not carry out work on commission from political parties. “We meet with all of the political parties,” says Quilter-Pinner, “and we get a sense of what they’re interested in. This helps us understand where our work can have impact. To give you an example, we’ve noticed that both Keir Starmer and the government are making a big deal about public service reform. So we are ramping up our work as we know there is an opportunity to shape policy that would make a big difference in the lives of millions of people across the UK.”

Then there’s the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Unlike virtually every other think tank approached for this article, TBI refused to make anyone available for interview – “we wouldn’t talk publicly about who we’re speaking to as it’s important for the free-flow of ideas that those conversations remain private,” in the words of its communications team.

That the TBI is centrist is obvious from its name. Its relationship with the Labour leadership was reflected by Keir Starmer giving a keynote speech in July at the institute’s Future of Britain Conference. Its suggestion last year of a 70 per cent home-ownership target was – by correlation or causation – replicated by Starmer months later. 

But its reputation is increasingly based on a tech-utopian zeal around economic growth and public service reform, which is eye-catching to some and eyeroll-worthy to others. Not all its recommendations tick these boxes, of course – the TBI’s proposals for education focus on a broader curriculum and modern ‘soft’ skills – but artificial intelligence and similar innovations feature regularly in its output. Jeegar Kakkad, director of policy at the TBI’s Future of Britain project, is combining that job with a part-time role as strategic policy adviser to Labour, where he is focusing on how technology and R&D can drive economic growth. 

Other leading TBI figures include executive director of politics Ryan Wain and executive director of policy Sam Sharps. Wain, Kakkad and director of public services policy Kirsty Innes recently authored a TBI paper calling for the transformation of Britain’s public services through digital identity – a single digital ‘wallet’ which would store people’s personal data held by different parts of government, enabling more personalised public services and quicker information sharing. 

Labour Together, IPPR and TBI are the main think tanks contributing to Labour’s thinking, but they are not alone. The Resolution Foundation is currently focused on its sprawling two-year Economy 2030 Inquiry, which will culminate in an extensive report setting out a new economic strategy later this year. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work on economic security, led by director of insight and policy Graeme Cooke, is reflected in Labour’s recent rhetoric – though JRF chief economist Alfie Stirling is wary of overclaiming its influence on the party.

“Labour have not developed what economic security would mean beyond just a couple of quite narrow areas,” Stirling says. “So when they’ve talked about economic security, they have tended to talk about industrial policy… particularly coming out of shadow Treasury. And they haven’t expanded that to talk about how that interacts with social policy. Because a huge amount of people’s economic resources are conditioned by all sorts of things beyond what you might think of as traditional industrial policy.”

The main "progressive" think tanks work in different ways. In terms of directly engaging with people affected by policy decisions, Labour Together, with its laser focus on helping the party win power, pays limited heed; it brings in policy experts who might have extensively researched the lived experience of others, or might not. But the IPPR and JRF, which are less tied to Labour and often try to shape policy over longer time frames, have both tried to broaden the range of people engaged in their research; the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission used citizen juries to co-produce some of its recommendations.

They also take varying approaches to the thorny issue of government spending. In its desire to avoid feeding Tory attack lines, Labour is steering clear of unfunded pledges and significant tax rises. Labour Together is following suit. 

“It is absolutely the eternal dilemma at the moment,” Cooper says. “We absolutely understand why Rachel Reeves’ office is insistent on having fiscal rules. So nothing we would do would be ‘oh I know, let’s just spend X billion on this without thinking through what that would mean for the fiscal framework that Rachel has put in place’.”

“It’s hard for anybody to develop a policy agenda that involves spending no money and upsetting no people,” warns Sam Freedman, who worked for Policy Exchange in the late 2000s before becoming an adviser in Michael Gove’s Department for Education. “You’re getting quite small ideas because of those constraints, and where you get bigger ideas, they’re inevitably going to cost money, going to raise the risk of unpopularity, and so you don’t get Labour engaging with them properly.”

“It’s usually less about think tanks coming up with ‘the big new idea’ and more about ‘how do we make this work?’” Sam Freedman

“Small ideas” are not necessarily unwelcome in Labour circles. “Think tanks can be an incredibly useful resource, providing capacity to help work up detailed policy implementation,” one shadow minister says. “It’s usually less about think tanks coming up with ‘the big new idea’ and more about ‘how do we make this work?’”

Proposals requiring higher spending were known to vaporise upon contact with Pat McFadden, the veteran Blairite who was Reeves’ deputy. Labour’s caution is particularly affecting welfare spending plans, with the party sparking outrage by shelving its pledge to reverse the poverty-inducing two-child benefit limit.

But most observers expect Labour to both tax and spend more once in office due to loosened electoral constraints and the need to stop public services collapsing. That gives more leeway to think tanks whose proposals are geared towards longer time frames than the manifesto.

“There is a [Labour] fiscal position at the moment, but it’s as much a pre-election political position as it is a genuine fiscal one,” says the JRF’s Stirling. “We try and move beyond just a particular political moment, or cycle, or Parliament, and think about the change that needs to happen over one to two years, yes, but also over three, four, five and 10. And so we do work quite hard not to internalise all those constraints.”

Meanwhile, if the Conservatives lose the next election, their subsequent strategy is likely to be driven by which seats they lose – and whether they need to reclaim the red wall, the blue wall, or both. Either way, one think tank is in pole position to influence the next leadership: Onward. 

“Onward have managed to position themselves right across the whole party quite cunningly,” says Freedman, who points to the ideological breadth of their staff and trustees. “They’ve covered every base in the party – it’s quite impressive. So I feel they’re going to be important.”

Freedman contrasts the fear and scrutiny that Labour oppositions work under with that facing the Tories. “In 2009, you still had a very constrained financial situation, but [the Conservatives] could get away with so much more. Our education proposals were obviously going to cost money. But we just sort of said they’re not. And the press kind of just accepted that. 

“Labour can’t do that. So they constrain themselves so much more than we were, not because of the actual circumstances, but just because of the media environment in which they’re operating.” 

Health and social care: what’s the prescription?

The daunting challenge of rescuing the NHS and adult care embodies the dilemma facing Labour.

So far the Tony Blair Institute has grabbed headlines with its tech-led NHS reform proposals, calling for widespread adoption of AI in the NHS, along with individual ‘personal health accounts’ via the NHS App and ‘co-payment’ options to allow patients to jump NHS queues – with the latter idea explicitly rejected by shadow health secretary Wes Streeting.

“[Blair] genuinely seems to think there’s some magic button that can be pushed somewhere that is free and transforms the NHS, but anyone who knows the system knows that’s not true,” says former government adviser Sam Freedman. “But then if you look at what Streeting’s proposed, it’s pretty limited. He’s not coming out with a great reform plan. They’re just saying ‘we’re going to do reform’.”

Other think tanks have also set out plans. The Institute for Public Policy Research notes that its proposals for a healthy life expectancy target, monitored by an independent body, and a salaried GP model have been adopted by Labour, along with the IPPR’s rhetoric about a "neighbourhood NHS".

“It’s almost not at all about having any new policy ideas. We actually know how to fix this stuff" Andy Cowper

Perhaps the most significant intervention though has come from the Fabian Society, which was commissioned by Streeting and Unison to draw up a roadmap to a national adult care service.

“We had a choice of: do we come up with a small, thin package that might be immediately affordable, or say that – over time – billions of pounds extra will need to be spent,” says Fabian Society general secretary Andrew Harrop. “And we chose the latter, because we didn’t think you could credibly offer a whole system reform that wasn’t honest about the scale of money that would be needed to do it.”

Harrop says the wording on adult care that will go to Labour conference this autumn “will reflect thinking from this report”.

But concern remains that Labour does not recognise the sheer amount of money required to both rescue and reform the NHS.

“If we’re going to have a NHS that continues to be free at the point of use, and it’s going to meet the demands [placed on it], then taxes are going to have to go up by a couple of percent of GDP,” says economist Jonathan Portes. “And you don’t get taxes up by a couple of percent of GDP by taxing non-doms.”

“It’s almost not at all about having any new policy ideas,” adds Andy Cowper, editor of Health Policy Insight. “We actually know how to fix this stuff. We know how you fix a massive backlog crisis. We know how you fix a workforce crisis. You do a set of predictable things that have worked in the past – but they don’t happen quickly. And they will happen even less quickly in an environment which is not going to be giving you 6% real terms cash growth year on year.”

A version of this feature first appeared on CSW's sister publication, 

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