ThinkTent 2023: The best bits according to the TPA team

This week, the TPA team travelled up to Manchester to host this year’s ThinkTent; an annual array of panel discussions and interviews hosted in conjunction with the Institute of Economic Affairs across Conservative Party Conference.

Here are some of the highlights picked out by our team members from three days of insightful discussions and good-natured disagreements:

Our Tuesday morning local government deep dive - Elliot Keck, head of campaigns

There is surely no panel at ThinkTent more valuable than our 9am Tuesday morning slot on local government. Local government is a much-neglected topic at these events. Far more fashionable to talk about net zero, immigration, the NHS, and so on. All hugely important issues. But for most people, most of the time, local government is the main way they engage with the state. It’s the sector responsible for bins, parking, roads, schools and much more. This year we got into the weeds of what role experimentation should play in local government - from commercial investments in Croydon, to the four-day week in South Cambridgeshire. A stellar panel including the local government minister Lee Rowley and leader of the opposition in South Cambridgeshire produced fascinating insights into this crucial topic. Watch it here.


Debating the thorny topic of migration - Conor Holohan, media campaign manager

As Monday was drawing to a close, ThinkTent filled up for what was billed as the ‘Battle of the think tanks’. On the one hand, the Centre for Policy Studies representative and I argued that current levels of migration are unsustainable. On the other side, speakers from the IEA and Adam Smith Institute argued the contrary. It was a fiery discussion, with good points on each side and some passionate questioning from members of the audience. We covered how immigration impacts the public finances, what it does to public services and why, despite promises to bring down immigration, the numbers continue to rise. And, importantly, at the end we all shook hands. 


Holding the chief secretary to the treasury to account - Benjamin Elks, operations manager

You can call it cheeky if you want, but I thought our head of campaigns was right to take the opportunity of John Glen joining us to quiz him on a long standing TPA campaigning point during our event on spending restraint. Elliot reminded ThinkTent attendees that, in 2022-23, exit payments to civil servants cost taxpayers £182m. Then, given the discussion was about spending restraint, he asked Glen whether restricting exit payments to £95,000, as has been briefed previously, would be a popular way of showing some spending restraint. Glen agreed it was the right thing to do and confirmed he was working on putting such a cap in place. And not before time! 


A reminder of the importance of free speech - Tom Ryan, policy analyst

It was standing room only for this panel, and understandably so. While not directly a tax and spend issue, free speech affects us all. A panel of free thinkers, all of whom have experienced directly or indirectly the impact of attempts to suppress free speech, covered topics from free speech in universities, the role of regulation and the internet, free speech in the arts and culture, woke vs conservative authoritarianism and much more. Hear from guests including comedy writer Graham Linehan, academic Matthew Goodwin, historian and journalist Tim Stanley and fellow think tanker Marc Glendening. 


How much should we really be spending on foreign aid - Callum McGoldrick, researcher

Foreign aid can be an uncomfortable topic to debate, given the fact that the core objective is to ultimately (and justifiably) help the world’s poorest. But as we always mention, it’s not the intention that is objectionable - it’s the implementation. British taxpayers are incredibly generous, and want to see the most disadvantaged looked after; but this is what makes the wasteful way the foreign aid budget is often spent all the more galling. This is exactly the point that Emily Carver and Tom Hunt MP drove home to the panel, reciting case after case of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going towards spurious projects under an arbitrary spending target. After all, who can forget the TPA findings of millions given to ludicrous projects in China? Ryan Henson and Latika Bourke made admirable defences of the budget, and although there were some fiery and exciting exchanges, the debate as a whole was good-natured and informative. I’d recommend anyone interested in the topic of foreign aid to watch it with an open mind. After all, sometimes the most uncomfortable conversations are the ones most worth having!

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