The New Statesman Profile - Matthew Taylor

<em>Election 2001</em> - He is prone to impotent rage but, when he has an idea, it becomes new Labou

He is the quintessential Blairite, a Labour moderniser, down to his open-necked shirts and football mania. You would recognise him from Newsnight or Channel 4 News - he has hardly left the TV studios since the election was called. Unlike his Liberal Democrat MP namesake, this Matthew Taylor is lean and mean-looking, with cropped hair and blasts of eloquent social democratic visionary talk: Blade Runner meets The West Wing. For the broadsheet TV bulletins, he is a dream - a new Labour insider who dares to criticise the regime. No 10 has given him special licence, and only occasionally has he been judged to have breached that. Two months ago, Downing Street was said to be unamused when the Guardian reported that Taylor had dismissed Tony Blair's latest attempt to flesh out the "Third Way" as "fatuous . . . a mild form of Christian democracy". But it seems that all is forgiven. Matthew Taylor, just turned 40, has been approached to succeed David Miliband as head of the Downing Street Policy Unit - the commander of the elite corps, sitting a few yards away from the Prime Minister; his Whitehall outrider, thinking the unthinkable, shaping the historic Labour second term. What is extraordinary, and only slowly sinking in around No 10, is that this highly political, arch-new-Labourite appears to have said "No, thank you".

In the past few weeks, Taylor's Institute for Public Policy Research has won gold medals in the think-tank Olympics. The institute was set up in 1988 by business supporters of Neil Kinnock, with the aim of feeding policies into his modernisation of the Labour Party. Other think-tanks mock the IPPR's claims to "independence", but they all envy the institute's achievement of late April, when one of its pet projects - "baby bonds" - was adopted by an all-star ministerial line-up. The idea swiftly slipped into Labour's manifesto and was fully credited to the IPPR. At the launch of the party's general election manifesto in Birmingham, Tony Blair suggested that an even bigger IPPR project - getting the private sector to help deliver public sector services - would be at the heart of the second Blair administration.

Taylor is keeping the IPPR's report on public-private partnerships under wraps until after the general election. He is a canny, as well as candid, friend to new Labour. The commission on public-private partnerships has been chaired by Martin Taylor (no relation), the chairman of WHSmith and former chief executive of Barclays. Those who have seen the final draft say he does not flatter the government's handling of about £10bn worth of private finance initiatives. Matthew Taylor has insisted that the report is not a "privatisers' charter", and that it proposes tough regulation to control private sector involvement.

For Taylor's critics in the party, this is his ultimate betrayal. One former head of a left-wing think-tank was horrified at the "wholesale privatisation of public services which no other country in Europe has seen as necessary". Another rival think-tank has muttered that the IPPR proposals risk losing Britain any sense of the "public realm" and letting the "profit motive and market values into educational and clinical judgements". But Taylor's line is that Labour has five years to save the public services, or risk watching a renascent Conservative Party privatise public services its own way. This is the kind of big-picture, apocalyptic talk that comes easily to Taylor, but his early progress wasn't smooth.

He is the only son of the sociologist and broadcaster Professor Laurie Taylor, but Taylor Jr was slow to shine. He ended an unhappy schooling at the direct-grant Emmanuel College in Clapham, south London, "by mutual consent", and failed to get his A levels first time around because he eloped (to exotic Maida Vale) with a girl called Pandora. When he got his A levels on the second attempt, he got a place at Southampton University, where he spent all his time in student politics. The president of Southampton student union at the time, Jon Sopel (now a BBC correspondent), remembers him as "oppositionist . . . a Bennite". Taylor left the University Labour Group to set up his own Socialist Society. He even set up a peace camp at a Marconi torpedo factory.

Taylor doesn't seem to shine when someone else is running the show. When he flirted briefly with an academic career at Warwick Business School, he was elected to Warwickshire County Council. Even here, he managed to get himself temporarily expelled from the Labour group for what Taylor has described as a "characteristic outburst of self-righteousness" or "habit of impotent rage".

Taylor managed to contain these eruptions for two years as Labour campaigns co-ordinator, when he set up Labour's rapid rebuttal unit, and then as director of policy. Labour's policy unit had usually been seen as a Bennite hotbed, and was thus sidestepped by Labour frontbenchers. Under Taylor, it played a central role in drafting the 1997 manifesto and, more controversially, the five pledges. But Taylor's relationship with the party's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, was strained. He stayed on after the election to draft the "Partnership in Power" reforms before he felt another bout of impotent rage coming on.

Some of the trustees of the IPPR tried to dig their heels in against his appointment as director. They thought hiring an apparatchik from Millbank would sound the death knell for any claims to independent thought. One trustee was particularly put out that Peter Mandelson tried to lobby on Taylor's behalf but didn't bother to do it in person, deploying his aide, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, to contact the captain of industry instead. But Taylor's admirers, such as Will Hutton, think he has walked the line between influence and independence with rare genius. Taylor has expanded the staff from 18 to 42. He hustles for commercial sponsorship for research projects - the commission on public-private partnerships was backed by KPMG, Serco and the Norwich Union. Each has mighty interests in farming out public sector work, and more conventional left think-tanks would flinch at the associations.

Taylor is Blair's licensed critic, not Gordon Brown's. Indeed, it is not clear whether Brown sees a role for candid friends. So, even if Taylor did go to No 10, he would not survive a midterm handover between the two. Taylor has spoken in the past about the lack of intellectual curiosity in the new Labour elite, and about the centralising instinct that has not been tamed. Staying at the IPPR will spare him all of this. But what will he do after that?

Taylor fought Warwick and Leamington in the 1992 general election and pulled Labour up into second place. He says his parliamentary ambitions are probably finished - and has claimed that one of the comforts of getting a dyed-blond, two-millimetre haircut was that it killed any rumours he was seriously seeking a seat.

Outside government, he will relish the freedom to be his own boss, to write and speak freely (his latest output is an essay, co-written with his father, about why people aren't reproducing). His favoured status should continue until the day Blair leaves No 10 or Taylor explodes in impotent rage. But many may wonder if it's a strange commentary on the Blair regime, on the times or on Taylor, that this cherished (occasionally errant) son should resist the call to service and slope off to the TV studios instead.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men