Interview: CentreForum’s Julian Astle

Five years after being set up, coalition politics has opened up new possibilities for liberal thinktank CentreForum and its director, Julian Astle.

By Alex Stevenson

Much water has passed under Westminster Bridge since 2005, when the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy increased the party’s presence in the Commons over the 60-MP mark. Until then card-carrying party members had only been able to write on their pet subjects for a dwindling presence on the thinktank scene, the Centre for Reform. That autumn things changed. A team of seven or eight researchers were recruited, allowing the newly renamed CentreForum to conduct original research.

The man behind the project was Julian Astle, freshly returned to the British political scene after five years working for ex-Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown in Kosovo and Bosnia. Having started working for a Lib Dem MP in 1994, Astle spent six years working his way up in parliament until he found himself in the leader’s office in London – and then in Sarajevo.

Astle’s sparring partner in the Balkans and fellow political adviser to Ashdown was Ed Llewellyn. “We would sit and debate British politics, Westminster politics, from the distance of Sarajevo,” he remembers.

“Both of us were clear that when we returned from the Balkans we wanted to play a part in some capacity back in the UK.” Five years down the line, Llewellyn is advising David Cameron in No 10 as chief of staff. Astle is, perhaps unexpectedly, finding himself working as a director of a thinktank focusing on a party in government.

“Up until now, a liberal thinktank I suppose has been distinguished by its lack of proximity to power,” he says, laughing. “It is a dubious privilege, some people would say, to be working for a thinktank whose closest links are to the third party.”

Not so dubious now. CentreForum is recruiting three or four new members of staff as the political world begins to treat Liberal Democrats more seriously. “We are definitely noticing increased interest,” he says. And he’s right to point out that thinktanks’ fortunes “mirror those of the political parties they have the closest links to”. IPPR’s dominance in Labour’s first term meant they were able to raise a lot more money, recruit more staff and increase their output. “Now the reverse is the case.” Policy Exchange, probably the biggest and richest of the thinktanks, has enjoyed close links with the Conservative party.

One day Astle might, perhaps, be tempted by a job inside government, but for the last five years he has found his forte lies in leading a thinktank. He lists two big pluses which make the job worthwhile: being able to think more beyond the immediate than in Westminster politics, where next week is considered the long-term, and being able to say what you think. “Put those two freedoms together and it’s a wonderful environment in which to work.”

Right now, the liberal approach is paying dividends in itself. But the current excitement surrounding liberal politics and interest in its values has put CentreForum, and Astle, in an intriguing position. This explains his unusual frankness, and backpedalling, on two common dilemmas for thinktank directors.

These creatures tend to be shy about admitting their organisation’s close allegiances with one party or another. Demos, Policy Exchange, IPPR – their research topics are broad enough that it’s simply not in their interest to position themselves on either side of the political divide. CentreForum, straddling that gulf, is distinctive enough in its own way that this is one problem it doesn’t have to worry about. Being liberal is, after all, its unique selling point. “We’re very keen to work with liberals with a small ‘l’ in other parties and in no parties at all,” Astle says enthusiastically. Links with Conservative and Labour ‘liberals have been established in recent years. “That’s got a lot more interesting.”

Let’s not get carried away, of course. Even though CentreForum are obviously closely associated with the Lib Dems, it’s important they’re not seen as just parroting the party line. Here comes the backpedalling.

“We view ourselves as genuinely independent of the Liberal Democrats, a candid friend is one way of putting it,” Astle adds. “But we guard our independence jealously because it gives us an ability to blow the whistle… we haven’t shied away from doing that.”

Another common theme among thinktanks is the danger of becoming so long-term their arguments become disconnected to day-to-day political realities. Most, especially Demos with its 30- to 40-year perspectives, revel in looking down on British politics from afar. Astle is not so bothered. “I don’t think we’re as long-term as some thinktanks; we haven’t tried to be,” he says simply. “We’re keen to influence government policy and the party political manifestos, but do so in a way that looks beyond the very near term.”

Influencing the Lib Dems, in particular, requires a more engaged focus, because of the way the party forms its policy. Unlike either Labour or the Tories, the Lib Dems revel in their democratic processes which make conference delegates “sovereign”.

“By definition in a democratic party you have to persuade the party as a whole,” he continues. This has worked out on some issues, but failed miserably on others. On tuition fees, in particular, CentreForum has long argued that a private payment for higher education is “impeccably progressive”.

“We’ve made that case as persuasively as we can and we have failed to persuade the party thus far of our argument.” That failure could cost the Lib Dems dearly in next May’s local elections, and beyond, after the party’s MPs pledged to oppose rises in tuition fees before the general election. Now circumstances have changed, with business secretary Vince Cable and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg insisting they must abandon their pre-election pledge and vote through a near-tripling of the tuition fee cap.

They might want to take a look at CentreForum’s work as efforts to explain the party’s U-turn begin in earnest. Astle has some consoling words for liberals struggling to get used to life in coalition.

“The one thing they’ve got in their favour which they never had before is the opportunity to make the political weather,” he says.

“The Liberal Democrats have got to use the next five years intelligently to define the political debate on their own terms, in their own language.” The stronger Clegg’s party, the more influential CentreForum will become.