Friends of Blair

March 27, 1998

Who are they, how do you become one and does it help if you are at the London School of Economics? asks Brian Brivati

Six months before last May's general election I wrote about how some academics were banking on a Labour government beating a path to their door for advice. These Friends of Blair would replace the old framework of academic advisers to the former Conservative government. It would be the largest changeover of political networks for 20 years.

Now, nearly one year on, many of those mentioned - Anthony Giddens, David Marquand, John Kay, Ben Pimlott, Steve Heppell - are prominent in Labour's new Britain, while some associated with the former Conservative government have faded from view.

But the changeover was not as fast or as extensive as I had imagined. Until Christmas the new Labour "project" was noticeably self-contained, although the government did reach out early on to academics, notably via the Nexus experiment - a network of academics set up by advertising agency executive Neal Lawson to feed advice through to ministers using the Internet.

The momentum of the election carried ministers though the first six months with their heads down, while the civil service had trouble getting some ministers up to speed, let alone allowing them to extend their thinking beyond official briefings. As a result, Labour's first phase in office confined itself to rounding up the obvious academic candidates for official positions in the new government: Michael Barber, professor of education at the Institute of Education in London, became school standards adviser to David Blunkett, think-tankers Geoff Mulgan (Demos), Dan Corry and David Miliband (both at the Institute of Public Policy Research) joined the No. 10 Policy Unit. Richard Layard, unemployment expert at the London School of Economics, has been drafted into the Department for Education and Employment to advise on welfare-to-work and Charlie Bean, also of the LSE, acts as special adviser to the Treasury.

A characteristic feature of the first six months of the government was the announcement of reviews and task forces. Not all of them included academics. None sat on the Task Force on Youth Justice, the Export Forum or Margaret Beckett's Competitiveness Advisory Group. But in other fields academics were well represented. The Low Pay Commission is chaired by George Bain, vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, and includes David Metcalf (LSE) and William Brown (Cambridge). The related New Deal Task Force to advise the welfare-to-work cabinet committee includes Jenny Shackleton, principal of Wirral Metropolitan College, while the Scottish version has Michael Leech, principal of Stevenson College.

The education task forces, perhaps unsurprisingly, feature more academics.The National Schools Standards Task Force includes David Hargreaves of Cambridge's school of education, Heppell who runs the Ultra-Lab at Anglia Polytechnic University, Simon Lee of Liverpool Hope University College and gender expert Heidi Safia Mirza of South Bank University. The Numeracy Task Force is chaired by David Reynolds of Newcastle University and includes professors Margaret Brown of King's College, London, David Burghes at the University of Exeter and Christopher Robson at Leeds.

In the government's cornerstone review of welfare and pensions, academics are also playing a central role in feeding material through to the review team under minister Frank Field. And the various food health scares have brought academics into the heart of government, not only as members of the public inquiry into BSE but also in the establishment of the new Food Standards Agency.

Another high-profile group, chaired by David Mellor, is the Football Task Force. Its job "is to investigate and recommend new measures to deal with the public's concerns on issues such as racism, ticket prices, access for the disabled and the increasing commercialism in football". Mellor is advised by the University of Liverpool's Football Research Unit, while Anne Power and John Hills at the LSE's social exclusion unit are informally in touch on the problems of single mothers and bleak inner-city estates with the government unit of the same name.

In fact, the LSE, under sociologist Anthony Giddens, is fast becoming the key institution in the new political landscape. Giddens has sat in on policy seminars with the prime minister, and in his book Beyond Left and Right mapped out an extreme version of the so-called "Third Way" - a political approach for the next century that cuts a middle road between the traditional polarised politics of left and right (see box below). The Third Way is much in vogue with new Labour, though Giddens's social vision is rather different from that of the government. He is now assembling the cream of radical thinking at the LSE. The economist Stephen Nickell and the central philosopher of new politics, John Gray, have arrived at the school. Reports in The Spectator last week suggested that a super faculty was being brought together to act as a base for the world-wide movement of centre-left groupings Tony Blair has spoken of. Apparently, Perry Anderson (political scientist at the University of California), sociologist Richard Sennett and historian Linda Colley are all coming. With Giddens himself well connected in the No. 10 Policy Unit and other LSE political scientists and economists advising the government, the LSE is set to enjoy more influence on the Labour movement than at any time since the 1930s.

But not all academics are enamoured of new Labour's achievements so far. The ministerial performance of Blair's cabinet and of Blair himself have provoked sharp criticism from the leading expert on cabinet government, Peter Hennessy of Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. Hennessy's objection to the government, voiced at a recent LSE lecture, is squarely on Blair's presidential style and the threat this poses to cabinet government and to civil service independence. The demand for old Labour critics such as Hennessy will grow as the shine of May 1 fades.

The independent think-tank Demos, set up only a few years ago by Geoff Mulgan, has been rather muted over the past six months. The slack has been taken up by the IPPR, which proved itself to have some teeth when it questioned the nature of the long assumed link between improved levels of educational achievement and a nation's economic success. Overall, however, think-tanks are not yet playing the central role in the Blair revolution they did in Thatcherism. Instead, other, looser, academic-influenced networks are responding to the new age. The network, Sign of the Times, for instance, whose members include Kingston University's Anne Showstack Sassoon and the University of East London's Bill Schwarz, is running a group of meetings called New Britain. Recent seminars included discussion of an idea launched in a Demos pamphlet, Re-branding of Britain, in other words, how to re-position Britain as a vibrant, exciting country - more Britpop than warm beer and sandwiches.

But it is the Internet that has proved the best medium for academic feedback on new Labour's progress. Aside from a couple of funny but brainless Tony Blairsites (including one which carries a non-endorsement from Noam Chomsky), the most interesting by far and away is Nexus. Headed by David Halpern at Cambridge and Stuart White at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it now has on-line policy forums through which it has just conducted a debate on The Third Way which was submitted to the prime minister.

If you think the role of academics as public intellectuals is a good thing and about the only meaningful contribution we can make, outside the classroom, to the renewal of our decimated public culture, then the forums exist to take part. Nexus offers a direct line for good ideas to reach into the heart of government, and other channels may soon be open. Rich debates are developing and academics are leading many of the discussions. But, so far, Blair has had more of an impact on academics than they have had on the direction of his government.

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