Tributes to Philip Gould, a giant in life and in death

Philip Gould will be mourned by the party he helped into power, and the people he inspired after being told he had cancer

Although they knew Philip Gould was dying, the New Labour family was still in shock yesterday at his death at the age of 61. Lord Gould of Brookwood, who had fought a long and very public battle against cancer, died at London's Royal Marsden Hospital after contracting pneumonia. His wife Gail Rebuck, head of the publishers Random House, and their grown-up daughters Georgia and Grace were by his side.

Lord Gould was dubbed the "king of the focus groups" after helping Tony Blair to win three general elections. But he was much more than that. The political strategist was among a handful of people – Mr Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – who transformed a Labour Party that had almost gone out of existence in the 1980s into a party which governed for 13 years.

Lord Gould was there at the beginning of Labour's fightback, a big behind- the-scenes influence on Lord Mandelson, who dragged Labour's communications into the modern era from 1985.

In a world where advisers often tell politicians what they want to hear, Lord Gould was refreshingly candid – sometimes brutally. His advice persuaded Mr Blair to change Labour's policies, as well as its campaign techniques. His mission was to reconnect Labour with the aspiring middle classes. He believed there was no point in remaining pure – and in opposition. His focus group discussions with key voters often proved a more accurate barometer than the opinion polls.

In recent months, Lord Gould adopted the same candid approach to his illness. Most people would have gone quietly. Instead, he announced he was in the "death zone" and had three months to live in a remarkable TV interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr in September. "The moment you enter the death phase, life is more intense," he explained. He assured friends he was "in the right place".

While he was ill, he wrote two books – one updating his landmark account of Labour's modernisation, The Unfinished Revolution, and one about his cancer, The Unfinished Life.

He was active until the end, voting in the Lords last month. He attended events where the New Labour clan gathered. Lord Mandelson, who writes The Independent's obituary today, said: "Philip was as brave in his illness as he was in his politics, always doing things differently. When he became ill, instead of retreating into himself, he took it on and, in the process, took everyone with him."

Mr Campbell said: "He always needed a campaign, and the illness became the campaign. We called the cancer Adolf, perhaps the ultimate enemy. 'Yes', I said, 'this means you are Churchill.' He liked that."

Mr Blair said: "To me he was my guide and mentor, a wise head, a brilliant mind, and a total rock when a storm was raging." He added: "As his illness gripped him, he became something more. In facing death, he grew emotionally and spiritually into this remarkable witness to life's meaning and purpose."

Only a few people really change politics. Lord Gould was one of them. His influence stretched way beyond his own party. His remarkably revealing book on Labour became the manual for Conservative modernisers as they tried to copy Labour's return from the wilderness. Lord (Michael) Howard, who became Conservative leader in 2003, ordered his aides to read it. When they said they had, he barked: "Read it again."

Lord Gould described himself as "an obsessive nutcase when it came to politics." Over breakfast or lunch, he would gabble away at 200 words a minute but always made sense. He was irrepressible, firing off memos to Mr Blair at all hours.

His boundless energy meant he could cheer up colleagues in bad times. He was a very generous man. Even when he knew he was close to death, he found time to visit a Labour politician's young son who is suffering from cancer. He cared for his wide circle of friends. When I lost my job in 1987, on the closure of the London Daily News, he was quickly on the phone to offer some freelance work.

Inevitably, Lord Gould was sucked into the battles between the Blairites and the Brownites. For too long, the Brown camp regarded anyone associated with Team Blair as the enemy. Lord Gould was sometimes driven to distraction by that. Others would have walked away, but he worked overtime to win Mr Brown's trust. His loyalty was to his party, and its goal of social justice, not to any one leader.

Even though he was ill, he returned to work on Labour's election campaign last year, when the Blair band was put back together for one last time to try to rescue Mr Brown. This dismayed his family, who feared he was making himself more ill. But he couldn't stand on the sidelines.

In his interview with Andrew Marr, Lord Gould made a powerful plea for Ed and David Miliband to work together again after last year's divisive Labour leadership contest. He wanted the real brothers to avoid a rerun of the battle he witnessed between the two "near brothers" – Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

Lord Gould did not live to see David Miliband return to the Shadow Cabinet. But his words have not been forgotten and there will probably be such a reconciliation well before the next election. It would be a fitting tribute.

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