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Voices of the Right not to be left out

A case of Tory think tanks and good night? Not so, reports Jon Salmon, who finds the former wielders of influence convinced they have a role under Labour.

Labour's election victory has presented the Conservative-leaning think tanks with a problem after little more than 100 days of Tony Blair's government, many of their long-standing complaints about education have been addressed.

When it comes to tackling illiteracy, for example, or controlling teacher quality, Labour has been busy with initiatives which could have been the work of the previous administration.

So what role is there now for the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute and Politeia - or indeed the ever-vocal back-to-basics Campaign for Real Education? They may be down politically, and the media may have sidelined them in favour of Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research, but the Tory think tanks refuse to accept that they are out.

There are, they insist, key issues on which they must speak up. Some of these are predictable: an offensive on the renewed and, they say, potentially harmful grip of local education authorities, for example. Nor will they abandon their faith in "the market"; greater diversification, selection, and vouchers for parents remain on their agenda.

Less familiar will be critical responses to the Dearing Report on higher education, and attacks on Labour's Welfare to Work scheme.

At the Centre for Policy Studies, perhaps the best-known Tory think tank, there is a sense of a new raison d'etre - helping to rebuild the Tory party.

The centre was founded in 1974 by the late Lord Joseph as a proponent of liberal free-market economic policies. There is a feeling within the centre's command that it lost its "crucial" role in the latter days of the Tory reign, something that the election defeat could help change.

"We may not politically be the most favourite people in the world. But we can still work in the same room as (William Hague's) new regime to achieve the same ends," said one centre source.

The CPS has a new education committee, chaired by its director Tessa Keswick - once an adviser to former chancellor Kenneth Clarke. And an alternative model for the future of universities, in response to the Dearing report, is promised in the next two months.

There is a feeling that Labour has accepted the arguments underlying many of the centre's long-standing campaigns. These have included "progressive" teaching methods and teacher-training.

It is heartened, too, that the views of dyslexia specialist Martin Turner on the importance of phonics have apparently been taken up by the Government. But there is also unease at policies such as the scrapping of the Assisted Places Scheme and a wish to influence Labour's market and welfare reform.

One senior centre figure, Edward Heathcoat Amory, said: "If (Welfare to Work) works then it is to be applauded but there needs to be far more stick, as well as the carrot. Whether Labour has the political stomach for that we will have to wait and see."

Dr Sheila Lawlor, director of Politeia - a forum for social and economic thinking - shares the CPS's mistrust of local authorities. She said: "It makes schools answerable to bureaucrats rather than parents. New Labour fails to understand that the structure makes the standards. We are dealing with a rotten edifice. You cannot raise standards through diktats."

Dr Lawlor, a former CPS deputy director, favours much greater freedom for schools, allowing them to decide issues such as selection criteria and even class size.

And she sees Politeia being a significant force despite the change in Government. It has already weighed in with a pamphlet attacking Labour's New Deal as inflexible and bureaucratic.

Stephen Pollard, head of research at the Social Market Foundation, also argues that Labour's methodology is fatally flawed.

He said: "Using authorities as the structure for monitoring areas like improvement is wrong - in many ways they have been the cause of problems. The best way of improving standards is through parents, giving them the power of exit if schools are not doing a proper job." Replicating the independent-sector model in the state through vouchers for parents, he believes, would make schools more accountable.

Mr Pollard sees no reason to change the foundation's agenda just because the Government has changed. They had already made contact with some of the new education ministers before the election.

Lord Skidelsky, foundation chairman and an architect of the Tories' education election manifesto, agrees. He is anxious that the foundation, about to set up its own education study group, is not seen as a "Conservative" think tank.

He said: "When the Government expresses a market economy, a rather austere fiscal policy and promises to retain most of the structures of the Thatcher revolution you are simply on the centre ground - as you are with the SMF. "

The Conservative think tanks appear to have grounds for seeing themselves as part of the dialogue. If new Labour is prepared to think the unthinkable it might even be prepared to speak to the formerly unspeakable.

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