Sending brainwaves over the heads of the grey suits: A new think-tank is looking for ideas in unlikely places, says Jim White

Click to follow
THIS evening the National Theatre will be full of despair, disillusion and depression. The event is not a revival of a darker byway of Ibsen but the launch of a new political think-tank, an organisation which, its founders suggest, reflects the feeling in the air that something has to be done - about everything from unemployment to the state of our pavements - and that the last people who seem capable of doing anything about it are politicians.

Called Demos (which is Greek for people, rather than Sixties for waving a placard around), this is a think-tank which, uniquely, will not have any MPs, civil servants or political appointees swimming around in it. Which is probably why the organisers have received far more acceptances to attend the launch than they expected. Indeed more people will be there than the National Theatre holds.

'There is a rather worrying feeling abroad that conventional politics has failed us,' says Geoff Mulgan, Demos's director, sitting in the organisation's boxroom-sized headquarters by Victoria station. 'People are particularly disillusioned by the inertia of the system. They want radical solutions and nobody seems to be supplying them.'

If you have heard this sort of talk before - about 12 years ago, on the riverside at Limehouse, for instance - Geoff Mulgan is quick to point out Demos is not the SDP reborn. 'They were just politicians who wanted to seize the existing framework of power for themselves,' he says. 'It seems to us that the real solutions to political problems are being arrived at in business, in social services, in newspaper columns. Almost anywhere, in fact, except Whitehall and Westminster.'

Demos is the invention of Mulgan, who used to work as an adviser to Labour's Gordon Brown, and Martin Jacques, a newspaper columnist and the last editor of Marxism Today magazine. The two seem to have touched a nerve - they have inspired an impressive bunch of business people not just to open their cheque books to finance the operation, but also to join in the discussions and research.

Bob Tyrrell, managing director of the Henley Centre for Forecasting and a member of Demos's advisory council, says: 'I work in the corporate world, which is receptive to change, and I have been struck by the ways thinking has moved in corporations whereas it hasn't moved in politics.

'I deal with people who have to do things. From what I have seen so far Demos constantly stimulates me, both intellectually and practically. That is more than can be said for conventional politics.'

The most immediately striking thing about Demos is its youthful face. Last Friday, Mulgan chaired a strategy meeting of Demos workers - the main strategy under discussion was the quickest way to fold name-tags for the launch - at which peanuts and Twiglets and wine served in paper cups gave the proceedings the look of a student party. It was an impression reinforced by the fact that none of the dozen people there, including the chairman, was more than 30.

These are the sort of bright, ambitious, politically motivated people you might expect to try their hands as researchers or trade union activists or prospective parliamentarians - a thought that would make most of Mulgan's team ossify.

'Political alignment is no longer left and right,' says Tim Pendry, a Demos thinker and corporate strategist who has just returned from Moscow, where he was advising the Yeltsin government on privatisation. 'It is between those who are of the modern, internationalist, communications age and those who are set in the institutions of the past.

'That's not generational, as such. It's a mind-set. All three party leaders come from a generation you might expect to be more modernist in outlook, but any of them could be deposited into the scene 30 years ago and not look out of place.'

True enough. You could hardly imagine John Smith slipping on a pair of shades and tooting out some soul on a saxophone.

'Hang on,' says Mulgan, sensing another label about to be pinned to his lapel. 'We'd hate you to think we are remotely Clintonesque.'

More important, at the core of Demos's thinking is the idea that today's politicians are not high-fliers or intellectual heavyweights; they are the second-rate. 'Today's politicians have too much to do, have to stretch themselves in too many directions,' says Pendry. 'And the traditional career destinations for the high-fliers, the mandarins, the civil servants, have been devalued, both financially and by the inertia that exists in the service. It's like the relative decline in the status of the bank manager over the past 25 years.'

Demos's thesis is that the brightest and the best, the thinkers and the doers, are now more likely to be running a health trust in Swansea or a small television production company in Manchester than sitting in Whitehall. The organisation's goal is that these people can be brought together to swap ideas and solve problems.

'There are two channels of political thought running side by side, but entirely separate,' Mulgan explains. 'One is the conventional, political, mandarin-led one, and of course we hope to influence policy there. The other is more important: the real world, where political problems are solved and ideas are generated.'

A typical example of that, they suggest, is green consumerism, whereby people are forcing ICI and Unilever to sort themselves out, not by expecting government to do something about it but simply by changing their shopping methods.

'Ideas can move incredibly quickly,' says Pendry. 'Look at privatisation. It wasn't even in the 1979 Conservative election manifesto, and now it is received orthodoxy around the world.'

But how can they expect to influence policy and create ideas when they have no core agenda except a general feeling that something radical needs to be done, and when they are rushing at everything from policy on parks to policy on education?

'It is fair to be sceptical about Demos until it delivers substantive research,' says Tyrrell. 'But this is not just a bunch of eclectic, interested people chattering. In my work I have discovered that there are energetic parts of our society - politics isn't one of them - and it's worth asking those energetic people questions. You will find answers. In that way the seven wise men advising the Treasury is a good thing.'

For the first year of its life Demos will spend its time working at strategy and publishing pamphlets (one idea is to present local authorities with practical ways for small-scale reductions in unemployment).

There will be nothing shy about the enterprise. Unlike other think-tanks it will not operate behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms (although Mulgan enjoys a Silk Cut or two in a working day). The idea is to be open, accessible to the media - which they see as the new democratic process - and to move away from London as much as possible.

'All institutions are over-centralised on London,' says Chris Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods and another advisory board member. 'Regional thinking is rampant in all democracies except this one. I have no doubt about it at all, because I've met them, that people in conventional think-tanks have no idea what is going on outside SW1.'

Ultimately, Mulgan hopes to establish a network of political networks across the country, swapping ideas and arriving at solutions. 'We cannot hope to know everything here,' he says. 'But we hope to be able to tap into a great source of practical knowledge and point people in the right

direction when they need a piece of specific information.'

Which makes Demos sound like a political version of the AA: 'We may not know the answer to your problem, but we know a man who does.'

And this evening, at a packed National Theatre, they will discover how many political repairmen out there share their vision.