No ordinary think tank

Improving economic security is a neglected policy goal. A new initiative in Nottingham seeks to address this

Guest post by Jonathan Schifferes, Associate Director – Public Services and Communities at the RSA

At the dawn of a new parliament – one which will be gripped by negotiating Britain’s international relations while also negotiating new alliances in the House of Commons – the UK gained another think tank last week.

Some political insiders explain that this kind of parliament is likely to sideline the philosophers and reformers with a policy vision for government. Instead the deal-makers, the tactical masters, and the charismatic will be in demand.

In this context, what contribution can a think tank realistically make in the coming year? At the RSA we have been working over the last two years to support the development of a new kind of think tank: one that is focused on the issues of a specific place, within an ‘anchor institution’ that itself shapes the place it is in.

Despite over a decade of devolution and localism in UK politics, there are remarkably few1 civil society organisations that have been established with a place as their focus. We hear frequent complaints of policy silos and politics centred on Westminster, yet most think tanks organise themselves around a policy issue and locate themselves in Westminster.

To generate a richer debate on the social and economic development of the UK’s towns and cities, we need to bridge the gap between the sidelined political philosophy and the daily grind of machine politics. For several years, the RSA has recognised that universities have enormous potential to drive social and economic outcomes in the places they exist – echoing calls for a new breed of ‘civic university’.

RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor gave the keynote speech last week, launching Nottingham Civic Exchange, based at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). In partnership with the university leadership, the RSA has helped shape this civic think tank – bringing together many of our Fellows across the region and pooling our research capabilities. NTU views Nottingham Civic Exchange as a key part of delivering its overall strategy.

Going to the heart of what will matter in the lives of one million people across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, the first programme of Nottingham Civic Exchange is called ‘Out of the Ordinary’. Today, NCE publishes an analysis of ‘ordinary working families’ in the city-region. Rather than simply using economic analysis to fuel Westminster soundbites, and packaging up a new demographic for electoral fodder, this study uncovers important data on Ordinary Working Families in a specific place.

Six million people define themselves as ‘just about managing’

While the struggles of the ‘squeezed middle’, ‘alarm clock Britain’ and households on low and moderate incomes have been discussed for years, what is most remarkable is that nationwide, an estimated six million people define themselves as ‘just about managing’, despite being in households with income above the national median.

In Nottingham, jobs in the caring and leisure industries are more common sources of employment compared to the UK average, and the prevailing low pay of these sectors – where women hold the majority of roles – challenges household finances. The RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission made the case for place-based industrial strategies, which will be even more crucial as the economic adjustment of leaving the EU approaches, and devolution seems likely to stall. NTU has a particular accountability to families who are ‘just about managing’ – 21% of their 2015 full time undergraduate intake is estimated to come from this background.

Through the summer, the RSA’s ongoing work with NCE will bring a further focus on economic insecurity. We think addressing economic security is a neglected policy goal, which will help bring in to focus the following:

  • The breakdown of traditional class markers. University education has expanded for the recent generation, occupational roles in the workplace are undergoing accelerating change, and home ownership is declining among adults in their 30s establishing families. The financial security previously afforded by a university degree and a white-collar job is eroding, and partly as a consequence owner-occupation is less easily accessible as a form of insurance to protect against unstable or falling incomes. As post-election analysis has suggested, ‘age is the new class’ when it comes to predicting how people align to support political parties.
  • The importance of households as a unit of analysis. Most labour market statistics, for example, look at workers as individuals. Most workers live in households and financial decisions are made in that context: 43% of people have a joint account with their partner. Families and their homes transmit wealth through the economy at a scale which dwarfs the government’s own system of tax-funded pensions. Differences in the experience of insecurity between generations remain relatively under-explored.
  • The importance of looking across the life-course rather than using snapshot data pictures. Looking at longitudinal data across Europe, the lower middle class has the highest rates of transitory poverty; moving in and out of poverty defines their economic status.
  • The economic, fiscal, social and health impacts of subjective (‘felt’) insecurity are just as, if not more potent than, the effects of objective insecurity and material deprivation. This doesn’t mean that addressing material deprivation and poverty should be neglected as policy goals. But it does mean recognising that progressing in the modern workplace brings anxieties and volatility, not necessarily the secure affluence that many crave.
  • Longer-term, a defining characteristic of our era is declining confidence that the future will be better than the past. A survey in 2015 found 25% of UK respondents thought their children would be better off than them; 68% thought they would be worse off.

Nottingham housing

My hypothesis is that in a rich country like the UK, being secure in your economic status matters alongside your absolute affluence. And overall economic inequality matters in part because it exacerbates the experience and perception of insecurity for all in society: greater inequality means there is more to gain and more to lose from a change in their position on the income spectrum.

Beyond the day-to-day parliamentary dealmaking, the election aftermath may prove be one in which austerity plans are dialled down, labour market considerations dominate Brexit talks and vote-winning policies for ‘ordinary working families’ are reconsidered. At the very least, facing a broad range of possible futures makes it a good time to be a nimble think tank.

We need more people to be more involved in policymaking

The next phase of work for Nottingham Civic Exchange will look in more detail at the lives of Ordinary Working Families through research, policy development and working with local communities to identify important issues and come up with recommendations for making changes which have real life impact. They will also link students and staff at the university with wider communities through scholarships, internships, and research projects. In line with the RSA’s wider programme on revitalising economic democracy, we need more people to be more involved in policymaking – in this parliament and beyond – if government and society is to successfully address growing economic insecurity for growing numbers of people. Through partnering with a university committed to improving the city and region it calls home, Nottingham Civic Exchange will tighten the links between policy, action and legitimacy in addressing economic insecurity.

Jonathan is Associate Director – Public Services and Communities at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Read his posts on the RSA website here, or follow him on Twitter here.

This post originally appeared on the RSA blog.

Photos of Nottingham: top jess_k_kent1 on Flickr, middle Mr Thinktank on Flickr.


  1. We are aware of: Newcastle City Futures, Centre for London, Southern Policy Centre, Manchester New Economy. Let us know in the comments of others that we have missed. 

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