Simon Willis would have been an unlikely member of the Bullingdon Club, the notorious Oxford dining society which counts the prime minister and the chancellor among its alumni. Willis now runs the Young Foundation, the thinktank founded by Michael Young, arguably the most effective and influential Labour mover and shaker of the 20th century. But three decades ago he was a fresh-faced earnest Australian with Quaker roots who ran a razor-sharp Oxford university debating club with a charismatic young toff called Boris Johnson. “I disagreed with him on almost everything,” Willis says dryly.
Such was their mutual respect, however, that the future mayor of London offered Willis membership of the Bullingdon, which, in Johnson’s own words, was a “vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness”. “I was even offered a cut-price refugee membership as I had no money,” recalls Willis. “But I had to explain to Boris that I objected to the Bullingdon Club on principle”.
Willis is a man of conviction. It was his belief that the Young Foundation had become a victim of its own success that got him the job last year to run it. His predecessor, Geoff Mulgan, was a highly regarded former aide to Tony Blair who developed close contacts with Cameron’s “big society” team. “I’ve got a lot of time for Geoff, but we got to a point because of his success that we had become un-unique,” he says. “Social innovation was a very crowded space and the Young Foundation was just another thinktank doing it. On our website we declared that the foundation was doing ‘social innovation for making the world a better place’. That was not risky enough.”
His argument was that the Young Foundation needed to go back to the future and pitch itself as ideologically against inequality and meritocracy – which at first the foundation’s trustees required persuasion to agree to. “I argued that Michael Young was obsessed with inequality. I read them out a paragraph from his classic 1958 The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young invented the word to critique it. In the book, Young warned that meritocrats can be really dangerous people. They mistakenly think all their power and money and success is down to their own individual brilliance and hard work.”
Willis points out that in 1958 Young predicted executive pay would be 500 times frontline pay by the year 2000. Way before French economist Thomas Piketty raised the issue in his bestselling book, Capital in the 21st Century, Willis was arguing to the board that inequalities were widening to dangerous levels. In the end Willis prevailed and the board backed his focus on inequality. “Let’s say that we had a vigorous debate,” he says. “The most important point Young made is that the opposite of inequality is not equality, it’s fraternity … it’s community and cooperation.”
Willis has changed the structure of the foundation hiring big names with international profiles such as Gorka Espiau, well-known in European social innovation; Ashley Elizabeth Ball, who ran campaigns for the Obama White House; and Ceri Goddard, former chief executive of the Fawcett Society. “To understand inequality you have to understand what’s happening to women and why their position is going backwards for the first time ever,” says Willis. He points out women have less power in society, occupying only a fifth of non-executive board positions, just 23% of parliamentarians and 5% of broadsheet newspaper editors. At the other end of society, women own less, earn less and provide far more free care than men.
Willis says the “gender pay gap is 15.7% and widening for the first time since records began. Bea Campbell called it the ‘omnirelevance of gender’, which meant it was vital to understanding wider inequalities. It was one of the fundamental mistakes the labour movement made.” He says Young’s real skill was to translate his observations and theories into projects: founding the Open University, the Consumers’ Association and laying the grounds for NHS Direct.
Willis wants to recapture Young’s “disruptive agenda”, putting forward big ideas that will change the world. He has spent much of the last decade building social movements for the likes of the US multinational, Cisco. In conversation he talks enthusiastically about how to produce alternatives to payday lenders and getting a better offering to frail, elderly people in need of social care. Leeds is the first local authority to sign up to a scheme to make it a “socially sustainable city” and the foundation will base a team permanently there to run the Leeds action plan.
In Coventry, the foundation is in talks with the council to see if a new electric car could be made locally and used as a taxi service between the rail station and city centre. In all its work Willis says it will return to Young’s abiding interest in non-state action and that the best way of understanding how a community functions is to talk to local people.
Perhaps the biggest shift he is contemplating is promotion of the Open Sector, which he says is the Young Foundation’s attempt to split the private sector into two. One half, he expects, would choose to run as normal; opaque to consumers and the public about how they operate. The rest would detail pay differentials, how many women they employed, diversity in the workforce, the company’s carbon footprint and how much tax was paid in Britain. The idea is that this information would allow consumers to make choices about how ethical and responsive the company was. Willis admits this would require a big change in statute, but says he has had sympathetic discussions with both the Labour front bench and coalition ministers.
Willis’ principles are never far from the surface of a conversation. He grew up in an Australian household in the 1960s where “speaking truth to power” was a way of life. His father was jailed for being a conscientious objector to conscription during the Korean war. His mother, a prominent feminist, ran a campaign to legalise homosexuality.
“The house was always filled with people trying to change the world. It was a Quaker view that everyone was fundamentally equal,” says Willis. He left Australia to see the world.
Willis has popped up over the last two decades in public life to try to do the right thing at the right time. He ran the financial crime division in the Treasury under Jeremy Heywood, dealing with “very big thefts. We didn’t touch it unless you had a billion pounds stolen.” Then he moved on to advise Gordon Brown to shut down tax havens to stop the rich evading paying their dues.”I tried and failed on that one,” he admits.
Willis first came to prominence when, as a junior civil servant in 1995, he blew the whistle on a racket that in parliament was described as an “unprincipled scam being perpetrated by a cartel of high-street banks” where “£100m which rightly belonged to disabled people had been inappropriately siphoned … into private profits”. A huge row ensued and the National Audit Office was called in. At the time no one noticed that the story was broken by Willis’ former sparring partner, Boris Johnson. Says Willis: “They had a leak inquiry with all sorts of questions asked. No one talked to me. No one thought I’d know someone like Boris.”