The Lost Democracy
Do party conferences feed policy or polls? The role of think-tanks.
Q: What can you say to a young couple who can’t afford a home to rent or buy?
Q: What can you say to a bright student who can’t afford to stay in education because of Tuition fees?
A: “This Browne Report Review Group (3 ) decided putting students in debt to learn and pay interest on it would be a good idea – and it so happens one of group ( Peter Sands) for a bank, another was given a job by David Cameron after the election.”
Q: What can you say to the cancer patient waiting for an urgent operation.?
A: These powerful people with vested interests feel that delaying operations will force people to use private healthcare. NHS Privatised: Vested Interests (4)
What can you say to the starving and cold or to the unemployed? Basically that there are those who think that the world is not for you, even though there is food and sufficient resources for everyone.
Now, it might sound blindingly obvious to you and me.
Tanks don’t think; people do.
But it is not for us to think we know what is good for us. It’s just possible we might rattle a few cages, and tip the balance away from the establishment. We might just achieve democracy and justice.
What is a Think Tank?
NCPA (National Center for Policy Analysis ) (5) describes Think Tanks as “Idea Factories”. Factories make things. They then sell them and distribute them, and people use them. So, ideas and thoughts are now commodities to be bought and sold. Politicians are salesman or buyers, rather like an employee of M &S. We might question whether a politician unable to formulate policies is in the best career, if he needs to buy ideas. We should also question why people have ideas to sell, if their minds are full of political ideas, then why don’t they go into politics? Who decides that an Idea Factory will present policies, which are in the public interest and not for their own self-interest? Isn’t this undermining our democracy?
George Monbiot’s (6) excellent article, also published in the Guardian (7) demonstrates how billionaries and corporations can manipulate information – or spread lies. It reveals how the corporations, have abandoned the democratic process as a means to persuade the electorate, and settled quite simply on using their money and power to change information within the public domain. Money decides what and how information is taught in schools, presented in the media, and who and how we are governed. Where possible, they seek to conceal themselves and cover their tracks.
The Heartland Institute, which has helped lead the war against climate science in the United States, is funded among others by tobacco firms, fossil fuel companies and one of the billionaire Koch brothers. The Luntz techniques used can be linked to the Republican Party
Luntz’s technique was pioneered by the tobacco companies and the creationists: teach the controversy. In other words, insist that the question of whether cigarettes cause lung cancer, natural selection drives evolution or burning fossil fuels causes climate change is still wide open, and that both sides of the “controversy” should be taught in schools and thrashed out in the media.
The leaked documents appear to show that, courtesy of its multi-millionaire donors, the institute has commissioned a global warming curriculum for schools, which teaches that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy” and “whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial.”
Think Tanks and Thatcherism
Thatcher’s favourite Think Tank was the Centre for Policy studies. (8)
The CPS was founded in 1974 by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in order, in the words of Lord Joseph, “to convert the Tory party” to the principles of liberal economics, the focus of what became Thatcherism.
On education policy, the CPS called, from as early as 1982, for a concentration on standards, parental choice and the devolution of power to schools. Later it successfully called for the introduction of league-tables. The CPS “freedom for schools” agenda was made official Conservative party policy in 1999. In health, the CPS argues for greater pluralism in the delivery and funding of care.
Adam Smith was a Scottish economist who overturned the prevailing view that nations became rich by exporting more than they imported.
The modern system of free trade, free enterprise and market-based economies, actually emerged around 200 years ago, as one of the main engines of development for the Industrial Revolution.
In 1776, British economist Adam Smith published his book, The Wealth of Nations. He suggested that for maximum efficiency, all forms of government interventions in economic issues should be removed and that there should be no restrictions or tariffs on manufacturing and commerce within a nation for it to develop.
For this to work, social traditions had to be transformed.
Professor Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism details how peasants did not willingly abandon their self-sufficient lifestyle to go work in factories.
- Instead they had to be forced with the active support of thinkers and economists of the time, including the famous originators of classical political economy, such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Steuart and others.
- Contradicting themselves, as if it were, they argued for government policies that deprived the peasants their way of life of self-provision, to coerce them into waged labor.
- Separating the rural peasantry from their land was successful because of “ideological vigor” from people like Adam Smith, and because of a “revision of history” that created an impression of a humanitarian heritage of political economy; an inevitability to be celebrated.
- This revision, he also noted has evidently “succeeded mightily.”
Such were the powers of persuasion, that politicians looked for academics to make their arguments for them. It was 1977, that the Adam Smith Institute further inspired Margaret Thatcher to develop policies of privatization and low taxation for the rich which led to the spiralling out-of-control neo-liberalist policies which have led to the current financial crisis.
Today, we find Think Tanks are everywhere, and the number proliferating out of control like cancers in our democratic bodies. The success Thatcher enjoyed by using powerful Think Tanks and PR companies backed by very rich benefactors to achieve her aims ultimately led to other political groups using similar means to achieve their own. However there can be no fairness without equality and transparency of funding, media exposure and controls.
In fact, Think Tanks have proliferated to such an extent that they now have league tables as to which is best and present trophies to those they like. What further self-gratification can we tolerate as democratic systems become history?
Peter Mandelson presents the Global Think Tank of the Year Award to Guntram Wolff, the deputy director of Bruegel.
David Cameron’s Tories, and their very presence in Westminster is very dependent on right-leaning Think Tanks.
Red Pepper (13) reports:
Two recent scandals showed how closely knit the networks between politics, public relations and lobbying companies, the corporate world and think‑tanks really are. First, there was Liam Fox and the now defunct think-tank Atlantic Bridge. In October 2011, Fox lost his job as defence secretary over the questionable connections between his party, US-American neo-cons, big business and the think-tank – which he helped set up in 2003.
Second, in December, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism broke a scandal about the practices of professional lobbying companies in Britain. One agency, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, stood out with its claims about the ‘dark arts’ of manipulating politics and politicians. Managing director Tim Collins, a speechwriter and aide to several Tory leaders and MPs, emphasised his company’s excellent links with the Conservative Party to undercover journalists posing as potential clients.
Who’s Who and Who is funding Think Tanks?
So-called Think Tanks, supplying the political PR industry have proliferated at such a rate in recent years and are intertwined such that is difficult to unpick the web to discover truth of who is behind them. Rather than face the reality and speak sense truthfully to the people, lies prevail and escalate rather like an Emperor who wears no clothes. To create controversy, to create confusion and misunderstandings is accepted as the norm – fine as long as the sponsors are kept happy and the politicians get themselves elected.
Everyone knows there is no truth in it, but then everyone plays the game because of the desire to succeed in politics or business. These days politics is a career, no longer a means to change the world.
In other words, Think Tanks proliferate because of the need to confuse and contradict. It is no wonder that the voters tire of politicians.
“When she attempted to restrict abortion counselling, Nadine Dorries MP was supported by a group called Right to Know. When other MPs asked her who funds it, she claimed she didn’t know. Lord Lawson is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on climate science. It demands “openness and transparency” from scientists . Yet he refuses to say who pays, on the grounds that the donors “do not wish to be publicly engaged in controversy.” Michael Gove was chairman of Policy Exchange, an influential conservative thinktank. When I asked who funded Policy Exchange when he ran it, his office told me “he doesn’t have that information and he won’t be able to help you.”
The Kochs and the oil company Exxon have also funded a swarm of thinktanks which, by coincidence, all spontaneously decided that manmade climate change is a myth. A study in the journal Environmental Politics found that such groups, funded by economic elites and working through the media, have been “central to the reversal of US support for environmental protection, both domestically and internationally.”
Jeff Judson, who has worked for 26 years as a corporate lobbyist in the US, has explained why thinktanks are more effective than other public relations agencies. They are, he says, “the source of many of the ideas and facts that appear in countless editorials, news articles, and syndicated columns.”They have “considerable influence and close personal relationships with elected officials”. They “support and encourage one another, echo and amplify their messages, and can pull together … coalitions on the most important public policy issues.” Crucially, they are “virtually immune to retribution … the identity of donors to think tanks is protected from involuntary disclosure.”
The harder you stare at them, the more they look like lobby groups working for big business without disclosing their interests. Yet throughout the media they are treated as independent sources of expertise. The BBC is particularly culpable. Even when the corporate funding of its contributors has been exposed by human rights or environmental groups, it still allows them to masquerade as unbiased commentators, without disclosing their interests.”
We should be fully aware of who is funding these organisations who call themselves Think Tanks for the sake of our democracy. It should be compulsory for anyone who is influencing policy to disclose who is sponsoring them. Another threat to our democracy of utmost concern is the influence of other rich individuals, particularly members of the royal family. Why should we permit Prince Charles to have influence over elected members of parliament? Attempts not to disclose contents of Prince Charles’ letters to ministers has been ruled unlawful by a judge. Guardian 21)
In a significant ruling published on Tuesday, three judges in a freedom of information tribunal decided the public is entitled to know how the prince seeks to alter government policy.
“The essential reason is that it will generally be in the overall public interest for there to be transparency as to how and when Prince Charles seeks to influence government,” they ruled.
For seven years, the government has been resisting the disclosure of a set of letters following a freedom of information request by the Guardian to see them.
What is most concerning is that some thought such an influence could even be contemplated.
A handful of Think Tanks
Under some external pressure, some Think-Tanks have volunteered information about funding. On June 21st 2012, a web site Who Funds You? (15) was launched calling for think tanks and public policy campaigns to publish their annual income and name their major funders.For its pilot project, Who Funds You? asked 20 leading UK-based think tanks and political campaigns to disclose their major funders and rated them on the depth of their responses. Unsurprisingly the Think Tanks favoured by the political right are the least likely to be transparent. The website awarded six organisations its top “A” rating (Compass, IPPR, New Economics Foundation, Progress, Resolution Foundation, Social Market Foundation), while three received its lowest “E” rating (Adam Smith Institute, ResPublica, TaxPayers’ Alliance). Richard Murphy (Tax Research UK) also comments (here) (20).
The full results are:
A – Compass, IPPR, NEF, Progress, Resolution Foundation, Social Market Foundation
B – Demos, Fabian Society, Policy Network, Reform
C – Centre Forum, Civitas, Smith Institute
D – Centre for Policy Studies, Centre for Social Justice, Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange
E – Adam Smith Institute, ResPublica, TaxPayers’ Alliance
ResPublica (Category E), identifies itself as an independent, non-partisan public policy think-tank established in 2009 by Phillip Blond.
IEA: The Institute of Economic Affairs: (Cat D) The IEA is registered as an educational and research charity. On this basis it claims to be entirely funded by voluntary donations. In 2010 the income was reported at £896,000. They give no public information on their web page about donors.
PROGRESS (CAT A) Progress was set up as a party-within a party and separately funded. Bill Pottinger, the largest PR firm was set up by Lord Bell, who worked as a PR adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Why is a PR company, working for foreign governments contributing large sums of money to sub-groups in The British Labour Party, if not to influence certain groups within it, and contribute further to a Party which has been wrenched from its roots by New Labour. Funding last year £368,598 Progress show contributors on their website, which includes Bell Pottinger, and Lord David Sainsbury.
CLASS: The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) is a new thinktank established in 2012 to act as a centre for left debate and discussion. It is supported by The Labour movement and trade unions.
New Economics Foundation (nef) is an independent think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being.
Migration Watch: This organisation distributes statistics regarding the movement of people.
Tax Payers’ Alliance: (Cat E) claim The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) was launched by Matthew Elliott and Andrew Allum in early 2004 to speak for ordinary taxpayers fed up with government waste, increasing taxation, and a lack of transparency in all levels of government. If greater transparency is their aim, perhaps they ought to submit funding to Who Funds You?
Control of the Media
Individuals and ad-hoc communities communicate through the new media mass on the same level and use the same resources as the Masters’ Voices of days gone by (i.e. corporations, politicians and traditional journalists). These elites held control of the mass media, while the rest of the population listened, watched, slept and consumed. However, their time has passed: the unilateral monopoly of the Masters’ Voices is gone for good.
Featuring the Obama moment by Pete Leyden
( can be downloaded from http://www.methemedia.com)
During the Thatcher years and beyond, the establishment controlled the media. Corruption involving News International, the Police, and politicians have plagued our headlines in recent months. Whistle-blowers and leaks have uncovered dark secrets which many would rather not have been told. The truth is that technology has given communication power to the people. The Internet has given people a voice so there is no media monopoly these days. U-Tube videos, blogs and tweets allow far more freedom of information than was witnessed in the Thatcher years. So many people, can share thoughts and ideas, just as I write here. Control of the BBC and daily headlines continues, so much remains hidden. There are attempts to censor the Internet.
The establishment will make every effort to minimize freedom of information and sharing of ideas, and will not let go easily.
What is a political party?
Quite simply, a political party is an organised group of people who have similar ideas about how the country should be run. Their aim is to get their candidates elected to political power. Party members ideally meet, debate, and consult the electorate, and could, indeed be considered as Think Tanks. Indeed, in order to decide on policy, annual conferences are organized, with the intention of giving party members the opportunity to present motions for debate to be voted on and adopted as policy.
If Think Tanks are formulating policies influencing politicians, then what are political parties supposed to be doing? The expectation of the electorate is that they who are elected to make laws do so, by consultation with those who represent them, following debates within their parties and at conferences formulating manifestos which are then presented to the electorate at election time.
Funding for political parties is limited and transparent, though far from a perfect system, and ripe for improvement.
Party funding and Democracy
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 aims to make party funding more open. It specifies that:
- parties can only accept donations of over £500 from ‘permissible donors’, who are individuals on the UK electoral register, registered companies incorporated in the EU which do business in the UK, registered political parties, or trade unions
- all donations of over £7,500 to a political party’s central organisation must be reported to the Electoral Commission on a quarterly basis, or weekly during a general election campaign
- organisations or individuals who campaign but don’t stand for election (like trade unions) must register with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than specific limits on campaigns. In England, the limit is £10,000. In Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland the limit is £5,000
- all donations of over £1,500 to ‘accounting units’, like a constituency association, must be reported to the Electoral Commission
Direct Gov (17)
But in a democracy, surely it is groups of politicians who we look to be our Thinkers, and for answers to questions then politicians should be consulting those they seek to represent? For the ordinary man and woman joining a political party used to be a way of influencing the powers-that-be , enabling them to make a difference to the lives of ordinary people.
Conferences, now staged affairs, no longer are alive with original thought – Idea Factories. Indeed, since Michael Foot’s demonisation by the Press, Labour has been so focused on image, and the packaging of that image, that democracy within the party became something of the past, and as a result people left the party, and the electorate have stayed at home. Ed Miliband has stated his intention to revive the Labour movement and include the people in policy making. I hope this is going to be the beginning of redemocratisation of the Labour Party, and politics in the UK and elsewhere.
Do that, Labour, and you will become the People’s Party once again.
From Think Left:
2. Coalition MPs Links with the Financiers ( Think Left): Britain under Siege
3. Think Left: Thoughts inspired by Tony Benn
References and Further Reading:
1. Policy Exchange: Think Tank Selling Council Houses
3: Browne Report (Tuition Fees) Wikipedia
6. George Monbiot Plutocracy: Pure and Simple
7. Guardian (Monbiot) We need to low who funds lobbyists (Pure and Simple)
8. Guardian CPS
18 The Global Go To Think Tanks Report January 2012 pdf document
20 Richard Murphy: Tax Research UK: Which are the worst Think Tanks at Transparency?
21 The Guardian Sept 18th Judge rules contents Prince Charles’ letters to ministers should be disclosed.