The swot who knows best

As the election nears, think-tanks move into top gear. The highest profile belongs to Geoff Mulgan's Demos, promoter of a report on 'Tomorrow's Women'
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Geoff Mulgan talks slowly, as to an audience, and when he wants to take a note he keys it into his computer. His accent is classless like John Major's. He laughs quite a lot. When I met him at Demos, the think-tank he runs, he was wearing a brown /grey tweed suit, dark blue denim shirt, black and white coarse-textured tie and black shoes like a mountain rescue area manager on a London visit. He only goes to the office about every second day, and does most of his reading in trains.

That week Demos had held three seminars. On Monday seven members of the Cabinet office had come to the basement, on Wednesday Demos had looked into marriage, then there had been a presentation by Nick Wingham Rowan from Newcastle of his "incredibly imaginative new ideas for shopping".

Mulgan is the Prince of Wonks - American for people obsessed by public policy. As such he has attracted attacks, which go on, but with the general election coming, wonks and their think-tanks have moved into the highest possible gear.

Geoff Mulgan started Demos in March 1993, aged 31. His previous job had been as a policy adviser to Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor. But Demos's preoccupations are often almost beyond politics, for instance: Tomorrow's Women, published last week to much hype; the disconnectedness of the 18- to 24-year-olds from established institutions and expectations (they won't be voting); and last winter Demos published a quarterly (sent to the 2,000 subscribers on the pounds 50 sub) on "evolutionary psychology".

I tackled the wonk prince in his underground headquarters near Blackfriars Bridge. I had been told it was like a newsroom, minds sparking off each other, and sure enough Mulgan came out of his glass office and said something amusing to the dozen or so twentysomething men and women sitting at screens.

He took me into his office and switched on his tape recorder, saying an earlier unfavourable interview, "was run with little basis of what I said". So what is Demos? "We deliberately set out not to be easily pigeonholed, not to be predictable."

A woman Demos subscriber had told me: "He's not attractive. His hair sort of goes the wrong way." In fact Mulgan has fine straight brown hair cut schoolboy short. The bare ears make him look younger than 35. I couldn't detect charisma, probably because though friendly he isn't trying to charm. He is rather wooden on television. The still camera does not love him.

I wondered what had caused the press to demonise one think-tank and its director. "We have learned to be patient," Mulgan replied. "Quite often people have written very critical things and then a few months later they have come round to what we suggested." He doesn't bitch.

MULGAN went to Westminster then a state school, read PPE at Oxford (Balliol), got a First. Sold encyclopaedias; became an investment executive at the Greater London Enterprise Board, spent two years at MIT in Boston; lectured at Central London Poly while doing his PhD there and working as a telecommunications consultant. Directed Red Wedge - Labour support from rock stars such as Billy Bragg. Two years with Gordon Brown then set up Demos.

His father was a classical music publisher in London; his mother is a teacher - "I get on very well with my parents" - and he has two older "married sisters, one of whom lives in Huddersfield, one in Toronto, who I see quite a lot of". His many nephews and nieces are one reason Demos- think never reads like a scholar alone with his books. Demos is interested in changing the schools system to prepare people for life, including how to be parents, "though I wouldn't pontificate to someone about how to be a parent" (a giggle). Another idea is that young people should each have an appointed mentor (as they used to have an employer) to watch over them.

Given the likelihood of a Labour victory, Demos might soon be affecting our lives - not a cause of universal pleasure. An observer of the wonk world said: "They're jackdaws; cleverclogs who invent good words; not much of their thinking is original; they're everywhere - and nowhere." He did admit "Their hearts are in the right place." (By "they" he meant Geoff Mulgan and Helen Wilkinson, Demos's project director,who lived together until recently. They still get on well.)

"The classic think-tank is supposed to be sitting in an attic thinking up grand ideas," says Mulgan. "Our role is almost the opposite. We do fairly practical research projects with schools and companies, local authorities and foundations. We think the people involved in day-to-day practice, say teaching, or health care, or running a business, are often ahead of the theorists. Our researchers spend a lot of time talking to people who have been affected by policy ideas. But because that's much more prosaic, most of the media are wholly unaware that that's what we do.

"They would think it's rather boring to go around, say, clothing recycling plants in Yorkshire, which is what I was doing yesterday ... Britain exports a huge amount of recycled clothes to the Third World. Recycling is an area where jobs could be created at low cost. Green collar workers. That's not very sexy."

The advisory board of Demos spans right to left: Sir Douglas Hague, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, John Ashworth, chairman of the British Library and former director of the London School of Economics, Dennis Stevenson of the Tate and Pearson, Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, Ian Hargreaves, editor of the New Statesman - 22 names, some suspected usuals. Mulgan says: "We chose them all for being nice to work with. I can think of nothing worse than a think-tank where everybody agreed."

IN WHAT will seem a proof of both ambition and arrogance, Demos is publishing a political manifesto on 24 March. It will suggest what a government should do if it had a guaranteed 20 years in office; this will certainly get a lot of irritated comment. Geoff Mulgan seems unaware that there will be trouble. He gave me a sample of the points.

The 10 basic skills children should have learnt by 16 might be singing, how to resolve a dispute between two others, cooking, story-telling, speaking in public, growing food, speaking a language, using the Internet, camping, swimming. Government to organise a Service Year for young people: three three-month placements in different parts of the country, getting a small wage and lodging with local people. Employers to offer flexibility, including four-day weeks, unpaid sabbaticals and term-time-only working. City services to be open 24 hours. Community activity as part of the curriculum and required of every profession.

How to pay for it? Charging for some health services. Phasing out mortgage tax relief and tax incentives for personal savings. Cuts in spending on the elderly, and means-testing. A single European Army of 750,000. Legalising soft drugs (would save police and court time). "Although the primary justification should be ethical, phased legislation to permit euthanasia would achieve substantial long-term savings." Ending funding for the Church of England and the Royal Family. Making every subsidy of industry or agriculture subject to criteria of success. He proposes over 40 public spending cuts, piling up the billions.

Why didn't he go into politics? "I'd have been a terrible MP. I don't have the patience. I didn't much like being in Parliament physically. I found it a bit depressing. It's very dark and heavy. I like being out and about." Starting Demos "was the only way I was going to get a job that fitted what I wanted to do."

The months after the election will be tricky for left-wing think-tanks if Labour wins. Some of their wonks will be taken on as advisers by the new government. Those who aren't will feel their influence wane. It is of course assumed that Geoff Mulgan hopes for a job. "Any think-tank like us, if we were offered a way of plugging in and advising and giving ideas, we'd jump at it. But the idea of being wholly co-opted is not what we want at all."

But politics may explain why he is disliked. William Ward, a wonkish friend, analysed it: "Two reasons. On the surface, there's his youth and smart look. He has leapt to prominence without 20 years in the Labour establishment. Beneath the surface, he is a sort of metaphor for Tony Blair. The old left feels a lot of fury but chooses an Aunt Sally to vent it on, someone further down the food chain like [Peter] Mandelson or Geoff. He's a businesslike industrious swot - nobody in England likes a swot. Nobody likes a wonk."

This month Mulgan will bring out a book, Connexity (Chatto, pounds 16.99) that sums up his thinking about our wired-up world and bursts with new ideas. It is not elegantly written, but it is hopeful, pointing out societies grow like people, from depend-ence on tradition and hierarchy to the independence of liberal individualism to interdependence.

In his free time, Mulgan reads novels and poetry. He lives in Manor House, north London, and has a small recording studio on the top floor with keyboards, guitars and synthesisers, where be plays Beethoven, Mozart and dance music "for personal therapy". He has no mobile phone, "I like tranquillity". He drives a 12-twelve-year-old Honda Accord; he travels to work by bus and train.

He and four other senior staff pay themselves pounds 25,000 a year.The think- tank's 1996 turnover was over pounds 600,000. Demos writers are not usually regulars (they aren't paid). Mulgan says "unless at least half your writers are people you didn't know a year ago then you're probably getting a bit stale. It's important not to become stuck." Stuck is a favourite word. Stuck seems to be his version of hell. "I have an aversion to committees. I get very impatient. It's nice to have friends, but not a clique."

He reminds me of an old fashioned, muscular Christian socialist. I had originally thought he must be a clergyman's son and I wasn't so wrong. I found out later that he had Presbyterian missionaries further back in the family, and he plans to emigrate to New Zealand eventually. He's not the usual wonk by miles.