Sending brainwaves over the heads of the grey suits: Demos - 'Our mission: to bring politics into the real world'

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The Independent Online
DEMOS has grown out of the belief that we need a new and more imaginative way of thinking about politics that draws on the best of our democratic traditions without losing a sense of what works in the real world. Our aim is to become the first political think-tank for the 21st century.

This is an era of feverish innovation and experiment. But it often takes years for the centres of power to recognise the best innovations in child care, employment, health or culture. Today, innovation is more likely to come from the laboratory of a global company, an environmental campaign or a voluntary organisation than from the government or political parties. They cannot keep up with the pace at which their citizens learn.

Ideas, products and information are circulating more widely, both within national boundaries and globally. Many old barriers are breaking down - between men and women, between work and leisure, and between different types of skill and labour. Hierarchy and deference are crumbling. This is truly the age of democracy.

Thirty years ago the state was the nodal point of society. Since then much of its power has seeped into other areas and into the market - into newspapers and voluntary organisations, companies and the international economy. These often exercise more influence than governments over everything from exchange rates to crime rates.

Nor can the state claim to be the sole focus of political activity. Politics has spread away from the political parties to the kitchen and the workplace, the school and the supermarket. Even the Conservative Party now admits that its membership has long been in decline; Labour's is barely over 200,000.

The old left-right polarity is losing its importance and, no matter how much some Westminster politicians may yearn for their ancient ascendancy, many of the old levers no longer work. The world increasingly operates as a complex series of interlocking systems, in education and the economy, crime and health, culture and finance.

Demos aims to shift the culture of political debate. Politics has become too narrow. It needs to be enriched with the insights of other disciplines. It needs to break free from tribal divisions and labels. Demos aims to develop strategic approaches to the problems faced by the UK and other advanced countries.

Demos will work in a different way from earlier think-tanks. Instead of basing ourselves in shared ideas, we will draw on multiple sources. Thinking is no longer the preserve of universities or of the capital city. Demos will draw on thinkers from a range of different organisations and places.

Serious new ideas need doers as well as thinkers. We will encourage people to think beyond traditional professional boundaries, to think in an integrated way. And we will draw on people from across the political spectrum in the belief that the best ideas have no preordained political home. Our founder members include Dr John Ashworth, director of the London School of Economics, one of the most dynamic figures in British academia; Sir Douglas Hague, formerly of the 10 Downing Street policy unit; Stuart Hall, professor at the Open University; Ian Hargreaves, deputy editor of the Financial Times; and from the world of business Chris Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods.

Demos will be structured as a network that has a centre, not a top. Traditional think- tanks are organised as a pyramid, with a group of 'the great and the good' or an intellectual guru at the top. Demos will organise itself as a network of partners, working both full- and part-time, to encourage flexibility and openness. These partners will form the hubs of larger networks of thinkers and doers.

Our work will be based on specific projects, with academic experts, practitioners, business people and politicians all invited to contribute in seminars and study groups.

Our research will try to remain close to practice. Traditional think-tanks function as specialised adjuncts to government and parliament. The effect is to remove them from the experience of the people who make things and provide services. They can become abstract, rarefied and out of touch. Demos will seek a close relationship with doers, because that will not only discipline our research but also allow us to exercise influence.

There will be a variety of audiences. Demos will not be confined to the narrow world of politicians and civil servants. Of course, we will seek to influence both government and opposition parties, but public policy can no longer be made in charmed circles according to the old rules and etiquette. Our primary audience will be the makers of change in the public, private and voluntary sectors, at whatever level.