Mulgan says, "Sod em"

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 May 2009
Something important happened at the re-launch of Demos on Thursday.

Now 16 years young, the think tank has a new Director Richard Reeves who is repositioning it in preparation for Conservative government by embracing a 'liberal republican' approach. This is the title of his new pamphlet, written with Philip Collins. It's rushed and breathless - see the last para - but they are onto something refreshing. Trumpeting Demo's cross-party nature, we had both David Willetts and James Purnell at the launch party; the latter quite missing the point as he talked about "giving" power to people. No Lib Dem could be found to grace the stage, Reeves complained. Were they frit of the word 'republican'?

But the highlight was a short speech from Demos founding director Geoff Mulgan. It marked the turning of the tide. Exceptionally able, and priding himself on being tough minded, Geoff was a crucial backroom boy in the rise of New Labour. Splashed as a lad by the only creative moment of the early eighties, the GLC under Ken Livingstone, Mulgan became an advisor to Gordon Brown and worked on his 1992 Charter 88 Sovereignty Lecture, before being tagged to launch Demos a year later. In 1997 he joined Blair's No 10 team as his head of policy and then got civil service status to create the strategy unit. Under him this became a focus for cutting edge global comparisons. Where is it now?

Careful as well as confident, wide ranging and a rare practical internationalist, Geoff bought into the New Labour project but he didn't sell out to it.

(Unless, that is, you count his agreeing to become a Commander of the British Empire.)

Instead, he bailed out despite his unsackable senior civil service position, denouncing the sale of peerages (in passing, but on the record), to become the director of the Young Foundation, an East End policy tank.

I remember going to listen to him in 1996. He was speaking at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference. Everyone knew it would win the coming election. Though young in years he never seemed inexperienced and always cultivated a delphic ambiguity. But here he said very firmly that there was no point in a Labour government if it didn't reduce inequality. I remember being struck by his unusual clarity and pleased that he had committed himself to a measurable outcome.

This Thursday evening, Mulgan turned the moment of truth into knock-about. Just like 16 years ago, he said, we have a government that had lost its way after making a 180 degree turn on its economic policy. Just like sixteen years ago, the Demos founding documents said that the view from SW1 was out of touch with the rest of the country. Now, as then, the system was closed and not open to change. It was presented as irony but you could feel the agitation. He had meant to succeed. That was the whole point of being a New Labour hard man. He had not spent a decade and a half to end up meditating like a conservative on how things never change... 

He concluded by appealing to "the anagram of Demos". This, he pointed out is, "Sod em".

Sod em! Sod em all, the long and the short and the tall,

the Blair and the Brown and the Ball

the Levy and the McBride and the fall.

To those of you outside the New Labour equivalent of SW1 my attempt at verse might seem bizarre and kremlinological. So let me put it like this. Going liberal republican while prefering Isaiah Berlin to Quentin Skinner is scintilla radicalism compared to the fact that New Labour has lost its commanding intellectual.

This makes the ideological conflict that is to come much more interesting.

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