Lord Gould: Political strategist who played a crucial role in making Labour electable again

 

Many people helped to save the Labour Party in the 1980s and restore it to electoral success in the 1990s and beyond, but few could claim to have devoted themselves to the task, as Philip Gould did, through five successive leaders and six general elections. At points in this journey he was giving almost more than it was humanly possibly to do. Throughout, he was New Labour's guide, its engineer and an important source of glue amid its personality battles. Amazingly, he finished as he started, offering friendship to almost everyone he knew in the Labour Party and liked by all.

As he wrote in his definitive book, The Unfinished Revolution – how the modernisers saved the Labour Party, which was updated and republished in September, he operated on the basis of a simple thesis: Labour lost the 20th century and allowed the Conservatives to govern for 70 of the previous 100 years because it failed to modernise; it forgot the people it had been created for. He was unrelenting in the pursuit of this thesis. Nothing would deflect him. Every focus group report he wrote, every strategy note or advice submitted about a speech or interview, every conversation reflected this truth: Labour's values are timeless but not its policies and the methods and language we use to communicate them.

Why did he feel this so passionately? Above all because of where he came from and the silo he fought so hard to climb out of in his own life.

There was nothing privileged or fancy about his upbringing. He was the original suburban man, neither a "have" nor a "have not", who had a simple, enduring belief in fairness and opportunity but whose desire to get on in life was not well understood by Labour's later cadres. Schooled at a secondary modern in Woking where metalwork and corporal punishment were the order of the day, he was determined to put this school, and everything it stood for, behind him and get to university. He did so, first to Sussex and then to the LSE as a postgraduate, where he flowered as a child of the wayward Sixties and the liberal Seventies, and finally, later on for a year at the London Business School.

It is not that he started out with nothing and determined to get rich. He was an ordinary member of the new middle class whose members he championed in politics. He understood aspiration so well because he epitomised it. It was the root of his success as an interpreter and practitioner of politics.

When I first met Philip in October 1985, I was the young, freshly appointed and totally untutored new campaigns and communications director of the Labour Party and he was the boss of a newly created, one-man advertising consultancy through which he wanted to devote himself to politics. Neither of us had yet met Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. He was a Labour man, had been from childhood and now wanted to play his part in making it electable again. I was introduced to him initially by chance by a mutual friend, Robin Paxton, who had known Philip and his wife-to-be, Gail Rebuck, at Sussex. Philip and I arranged to meet at Robin's house. His utter determination to serve was clear in the 11-page letter he presented to me on arrival in which he outlined his lifelong Labour beliefs and what he believed he had to offer the party.

Indeed, he was more than determined. He talked awkwardly, barely looking me in the eye throughout. I wondered how such a strangely obsessive individual would fit into the world of the Labour Party. But then, given our deranged state at the time, I realised he would quickly feel at home. And so he began, commissioned with the agreement of the then general secretary, Larry Whitty, to write an independent report on the effectiveness of the party's communications.

This provided the template for literally scores of subsequent things he wrote in the months and years to follow. To our political masters on the National Executive Committee, in the parliamentary party and the trade unions, I presented him as the trusted, professional outsider who knew everything there was to discover about public opinion and modern communications but who also knew where advice ended and the real decisions began. He played the role perfectly. He gained in confidence and as he did so, won everyone else's. Together we built a team of volunteers – the "shadow" communications agency – who delivered to Labour the sort of professional media and advertising advantage the Conservatives had been enjoying for years. In 1987, our glitzy, red rose election campaign was labelled Labour's "brilliant election defeat" by Private Eye, and even Tony Benn had to acknowledge that the party had seen nothing like it since the first TV election campaign in 1959.

But as in 1959, the analyses that followed questioned whether Labour would ever win a general election again. For Philip, as for all of us, the mountain was yet to be scaled, taking a further 10 years and two more campaigns to pitch us into power. Throughout the whole of this period, Philip never stopped. He went to the US and brought home to us the secrets of Bill Clinton's success. He marshalled the research, wrote the strategy notes, briefed the agencies and steered us, week in, week out, until first in 1997, then 2001, and finally in 2005 Labour escaped the stigma of election defeat that had hung over the party for so many decades.

In 2010, by now in the grip of the cancer he fought so bravely and openly, he still showed up, undogged and undaunted – still rooted in the ambitions of the suburban man and woman for whom progressive policies matter because they actually make a difference to the quality and comfort of their lives.

Philip never stood for office and so never lost his outsider's perspective, even after he entered the House of Lords. Nor did he forsake the often searing and indispensible honesty he brought to his analysis or his belief that, for all the importance of first-rate communications, it is policy that remains at the core of any party's appeal and from which all else flows.

The reason why Philip was so good at politics is because he understood its complexity, the range of human experience and emotion it embraces and the leadership it yearns for. From this, he continuously distilled and framed and defined what Labour stood for and offered. For many years this has been New Labour, the modern way of expressing our relevance to voters who want us to be true to our core beliefs but also to own the future. Philip never stopped thinking that, whatever route Labour takes in the meantime, it is to this essential truth that the party will return in order to win again.

For Gail, formidable in her own right, and his lovely daughters, Georgia and Grace, it must have sometimes seemed that Philip was giving too much of himself to politics. But it wasn't politics he cared most about, it was Labour. They, and the rest of us, will never forget what Philip did in transforming the party's fortunes. Of him it can truly be said, it would not have happened without him.

Philip Gould, political advisor and strategist: born 30 March 1950; founder, Philip Gould Associates 1985; deputy chairman, Freud Communications 2008-; Visiting Professor, London School of Economics; cr. 2004 Lord Gould of Brookwood; married 1985 Gail Rebuck (two daughters); died London 6 November 2011.

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