Blair chief marshal

January 31, 1997

Cofounder of left-of-centre intellectual network Nexus and big Blair fan, David Halpern is relishing the prospect of a new government. Phil Baty reports

Michael Heseltine would dismiss him as a stooge for Tony Blair's New Labour. But David Halpern would laugh off such slurs. While Heseltine attacked Blair's friends from the business world last week, Halpern was busy rallying his elite team of academics, who are quite happy to be among Blair's new circle of acquaintances.

Balancing a teaching job at Cambridge University's faculty of social and political sciences with the coordination of Nexus, the left-of-centre intellectual network he cofounded last year, Halpern has already been singled out as a rising star of the new left's policy-making elite. "Ideas are important," he says. "And Tony Blair really thinks there are things to be learned from the academic community."

Nexus has been lauded for creating more effective contacts between the Labour party and the intellectual community and the network is succeeding beyond all expectations. Halpern is clearly enchanted by the cult of Blair. "Tony's personality was crucial to Nexus's formation," he says. "He knows it's crucial to get New Labour's ideas right and recognises that there's a lot of work to do. When I've met him, I have got a sense that he actually listens, which is unusual for a senior politician. It is slightly disarming when you get humility."

Halpern, just 30, has spent most of his formative years and all of his academic life under a Conservative government. He completed his first degree, in experimental psychology, at Cambridge, where he also did a PhD in social psychology before taking up a prize research fellowship, finished last year, at Oxford.

Blair's drive to look beyond the formal party structure for help with policy looks increasingly convincing. Members of the Institute of Public Policy Research commission, attacked last week as Labour stooges by a piqued deputy prime minister, include George Bain, principal of the London Business School, several other heavyweight academics and a clutch of industry captains. "Blair has got a framework we can work with," says Halpern. "Politicians have got to look at real causes and look at things in real detail. If you understand the world better, it can lead to better policy.

"Where do long-term, cross-departmental issues get thought about?" he asks. "Not really anywhere." He sprawls low in his chair, getting lower as he gets into his PR routine.

"Politics focuses on a short timeframe. Major issues don't fit into anyone's brief and they don't get discussed properly. Basic questions tend to go unanswered. We shouldn't just take for granted all the assumptions underlying current policies. It's appropriate sometimes to ask: 'What are the basic things we really care about? Is it GDP per capita? Why is it important?' Academe steps back a little bit from the day to day. Nexus is a new mechanism to bring academics together and contribute realistically to the ideas process."

Halpern's priority is organising Nexus's electronic communications. The Rowntree Trust has just awarded a "very exciting" grant for this work. "Think tanks which are not within walking distance of Westminster are starting to get alienated," he says. "So someone sitting in a university has really got their work cut out to plug in. With the web site, we're genuinely opening the door for academics."

Beyond the clear Blairite affiliation, Halpern is determined to emphasise that Nexus has no formal Labour allegiance and that he has been involved in "a great deal" of cross-party work. Last November, Nexus linked up with the Liberal Democrat's journal, Reformer, a relationship he says is already changing the shape of Nexus. "Of course our links with the Labour party are strong," he explains. "But we need our independence. There are many issues in the run-up to the election which are politically difficult to talk about in a frank way, yet you can't just brush them under the carpet. A lot of our ideas need to be discussed at arm's length from the political parties. But we do need strong links to the policy-makers, otherwise it's not going to go anywhere. Our job is to trailblaze. Blair's office is keen that Nexus becomes a safe space where politicians and academics can come together and interact in a way they somehow can't when they've just got their usual hat on."

At present, Halpern laments, the truth is too often ignored when setting a purely vote-winning policy agenda. "Essentially the Home Office has some very bizarre policies," he says. "Crime is widely seen as the area with the widest disparity between what we know in the academic sense about the causes of crime and what politicians do in terms of policy. The facts are known inside the Home Office, which has a very powerful research division. How can you keep a straight face when you see policies coming out which you know are not effective?" But with Jack Straw's policies on crime scarcely distinguishable from Michael Howard's, surely Labour is as guilty as the Conservatives? Not according to Halpern. "When Blair said he wanted to look at the causes of crime, this was exactly right, but it's a terribly politically charged area. To get policy right in the long run, you need to understand and reduce the causes of crime, but people are very hostile to this thinking in electoral terms. In the short term you still have to make it clear that smashing someone over the head with an iron bar is wrong. Jack Straw is very aware of this, but he knows he can't do a damn thing unless he gets into government. I'm confident he's created spaces in which better policies can be developed in the long term, but at the moment Labour is under tremendous electoral pressure.

"It's bad, frankly, that the opposition doesn't have the resources to do its job properly. You've got a Government that holds all the cards and all the information and has huge resources available to it, and on the other hand, you have what's really a very small group of people desperately trying to do a huge amount of stuff, when they don't have the back-up to do it. I feel there is almost a moral pressure on academics to help. They can help out a lot, maybe more than they realise sometimes."

Halpern already has to juggle teaching work with Nexus and family life - a pager sits in his pocket, ready to signal the arrival of his first child. And his PC has just broken down. Yet he is relishing the prospect of the increased workload that will come with a change of government. "When a party seeks power, its grassroots really has to fall into line. The party has to become much more of a propaganda machine, and less an ideas machine. Think tanks are closer to the Government and are limited as to what they can do. But who is left to look at the bigger picture? Nexus will take on a much more important role after the election." As indeed, might David Halpern.

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