Preoccupied to the point of obsession with the New Labour brand

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The Independent Online

Philip Gould is a man preoccupied to the point of obsession by the Labour Party's ability to lose elections. Of his two daughters, Georgia and Grace, he has said, "For a long time what they thought I did was lose elections. They thought, Dad's going to blow it again." Odd. When Labour last lost a general election in 1992 Georgia would have been age seven and Grace all of three. They can't really have been worked up by the recollection of daddy's lost elections, can they? It is strange that he thinks they would be and willingly parades the preoccupation. Strange, that is, unless you know Philip Gould.

Philip Gould is a man preoccupied to the point of obsession by the Labour Party's ability to lose elections. Of his two daughters, Georgia and Grace, he has said, "For a long time what they thought I did was lose elections. They thought, Dad's going to blow it again." Odd. When Labour last lost a general election in 1992 Georgia would have been age seven and Grace all of three. They can't really have been worked up by the recollection of daddy's lost elections, can they? It is strange that he thinks they would be and willingly parades the preoccupation. Strange, that is, unless you know Philip Gould.

Tony Blair's private pollster and focus group guru used to walk round the garden as a little boy planning political campaigns. "I was not calm about this," he writes in the introduction to his apologia pro vota sua The Unfinished Revolution, "I was obsessed".

He sees himself as a front-line soldier in the brutal, unending struggle between the innate conservatism of Britain and the Labour Party's repeatedly thwarted ambition to become the natural party of government. Its failures are matter of deep personal concern to him.

Like a lot of politics in the raw, his memos are not a pretty sight when plastered across the newspapers. But the candour and scope of his advice, however unforgiving, is the very reason Mr Blair places such faith in him in the first place. Widely caricatured this week as just another purveyor of presentational politics and part of the spin ensemble, Gould's real value lies at the other end of the spectrum. His purpose is to provide astringency, not another layer of makeup, for Mr Blair. Hence the unforgiving list of perceived negatives: "Our current situation is serious... the Government has been drifting, growing almost monthly weak... we are outflanked on patriotism and crime, suffering from disconnection... the brand has been badly contaminated... we have just not delivered workable policies."

This relentless style irritates ministers and backbenchers who dislike the tone of permanent paranoia. Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Clare Short are particularly sceptical. David Blunkett has commented openly that Gould should write fewer memos, a view shared by Jack Straw who finds Gould's conclusion that the party was seen as weak on crime as a personal criticism. Only Peter Mandelson, with whom he has worked closely since the mid-Eighties, is a fully-fledged ally. "The problem," says one senior minister, "is that Philip doesn't think of the consequences of what he writes in terms of the dynamics of day-to-day dealings between colleagues, how things get done and the need to work as a team. He is totally fixated on elections and on the figure of Blair. It's unhealthy."

Born in 1950 in a London suburb, his father was a teacher and his Dutch mother suffered a distressing and degenerative brain condition. He has described his childhood as "an odyssey of illness". A dyslexic, he failed his 11-plus and took one O-level and started to work in a building society. The experience of early adversity is one that few of his colleagues in élite New Labour share.

Despite being told at his secondary modern that he "lacked the ability for A-levels," he fought his way into Sussex University and gained a BA in politics and then an MA in political theory from the London School of Economics. The LSE gave him some intimacy with Hegel's idealism and with the counter-arguments of civic conservatism. Taught by the great conservative thinker, Michael Oakeshott, he wrote in his memoir, "Hegel and Oakeshott are a good mix: one seeing life as the unfolding of great ideas , the other as a struggle to get by in a world without meaning."

It is an unusual intellectual base for a Labour man. Oakeshott's scepticism underlies Gould's intellectual pessimism about progressive politics. The Oakeshottian notion of "intimation", of emerging change hinted at by diverse, often subliminal indicators far ahead of actual political shifts, provided the basis of his trust in focus groups and the emphasis on what abstract qualities voters associate politics with, rather than the qualitative methodology of opinion polling.

After a stint at the London Business School, Gould worked in advertising, then founded his own public affairs consultancy. That led him to a meeting at a dinner party with Peter Mandelson, whom he convinced to adopt a group of Labour sympathisers in PR and advertising. The Shadow Communications Agency was the result. It began the Labour Party's painful transition from media-hostile institution to a slick media operation. Focus group findings as the basis for policy were the rock on which he built his church .

In his recent memos, as elsewhere, Gould reserves particular venom for the blithe liberalism of New Labour grandees "Whenever I hear people being criticized for their blinkered or reactionary view on crime," he writes in The Unfinished Revolution, "I always ask: have you known the dreadful, repetitive tedium of manual work... lived in cramped houses in communities where walking the streets late at night is not a safe option, known the cancerous insecurity of work as clerks or office administrators, not poor, but never safe, always worrying about the cost of providing for your family?" His worries that New Labour has lost the plot on crime in the past year and given a powerful issue back to the Tories surfaced verbatim in Mr Blair's own memo on the unsatisfactory state of the Government's message.

This acute sense of the insecurities of lower middle England has always been shared by Mr Blair. On Gould's advice, he chose as the mantra of the 1997 campaign the words, "reassurance, reassurance, reassurance". Neither man underestimates the likelihood of a Tory revival. The central argument of the Unfinished Revolution is that Labour must do a deal with the Liberal Democrats, a project Gould would probably like to see further advanced than it is.

The particular misfortune for both Gould and the Government is that the leak comes on top of the publication of Mr Blair's own confidential memo about the Government's shortcomings. Combined with Alastair Campbell's bruised withdrawal from lobby briefing, the flurry of mishaps makes the entire inner team seem accident prone and luckless. That is a bitter experience for a man who has spent his entire adult life trying to cure the Labour party of the perception of amateurism. Even his enemies concede that Gould's tireless drive and focus has made him essential to the creation of New Labour. Tony, Peter, Gordon, Alastair and Philip are the quintet around whom the whole project was constructed.

Relations between the Chancellor and Gould have never been warm. "If you take anything we've really, really messed up and then trace it back to source, you'll end up at Philip Gould's address," says one of Brown's loyalists. The rift deepened when Brown distrusted his recommendations to be ultra-cautious on tax during the last election campaign so much that he commissioned his own research.

His early warning systems have however often been proved right. He signalled to Mr Blair (in vain) that the WI speech was a turkey. It was Gould who recommended the "five pledges" strategy at the last election, copied successfully by Gerhard Schröder in Germany and based on the emotional triggers revealed in polling.

"That's the trouble," sighs one insider, "Philip cries wolf a lot of the time and then the one time you ignore him, he turns out to be perfectly right."

This is not the first trouble he has had with wandering documents. He himself recalls leaving the advertising plans for the 1992 election in a McDonald's fast food restaurant and was embarrassed in 1995 when a leaked memo before the TUC conference announced that the party was "not yet ready for government".

His personal manner is eccentric - at times endearingly positive, verging on the wearing. You would know if you were in a restaurant with Philip Gould because he becomes so passionate in pursuit of his subject that his voice rises to an unignorable crescendo. The pitch of dogged partisanship never wavers, which has earned him the reputation a dynamic but rather unrelaxing figure.

"I dread him," says one spouse, "Just when everyone is a bit tipsy and on for a good gossip he'll start hammering away on why we have to build centre-left institutions. He can be very wearing. You'd love to tell him to shut up, but he's absolutely unselfconscious and absolutely unstoppable. Non-believers are treated with withering scorn."

"He made me feel like a war criminal," complained one mild-mannered Conservative party member who received a brow-beating at a party.

An American Democrat who came to pay court to him sat in the corner for a good half hour unable to believe that the rumbled figure in need of hair cut could really be the British pollster that the President's team so admired.

In 1985, Gould married Gail Rebuck, then a rising publisher, now the impressive head of the Random House Group. A ferociously shrewd businesswoman ("You might think books are for reading, Gail thinks they're for making money with," says a colleague), she has the social ease and breadth of interest he lacks. He is devoted to her and his girls, one of whom graced the cover of a Labour manifesto. They are discreetly rich and moved house from Bayswater to less fashionable Camden so that they could send their daughters to Camden School for Girls, one of the best state schools in the capital.

The late John Smith despised the "beautiful people" and considered Gould an irritating irrelevance. One of Smith's key aides recalls that he has "a really physical dislike of Gould - he simply couldn't bear him anywhere near." The ousted pollster took the message and headed off to Washington, where Bill Clinton in the presidential election had no such qualms.

Since 1997, Gould has joined forces with two veterans of the Clinton team, James Carville and Stan Greenberg, to set up a transatlantic consultancy with offices in The Express, headquarters of the Labour peer Lord Hollick, who also has a minority holding. Indeed, it was Greenberg's polling which convinced Gould to write his April memo with such force.

The Hollick-Gould link goes a lot deeper than a shared business interest. Gould's influence was apparent in the repositioning of Hollick's Express as a New Labour-supporting tabloid. During the editorship of Richard Addis, Gould was a very public presence, whose approval was sought on all matters of significance at the paper and quite a lot of trivia. When dismissed, Addis was convinced that Gould had been the prime mover behind his sacking because he had considered him insufficiently energetic in drumming the Blairite message into the unreceptive skulls of Express readers. For all its troubles, the paper remains a significant player for New Labour. It is the mid-market alternative to an increasingly hostile Daily Mail and reaches a lot of floating voters. The Express has been Gould's main Fleet Street cheerleader in the middle of the storm.

He affects to be unbothered by the leaks, "It's all politics and it's all happened before," he has said. But he cares deeply about the impact on his relationship with Mr Blair and his role in the next election. Campaigns, he says, make him "come alive". As he told one friend this week, "They could drop a fucking nuclear bomb on me and I wouldn't give up working for a modernising, electable Labour Party."

A few days before the leak, I bumped into Gould in the hall of Number 10. He was his usually preoccupied self, shuffling a sheaf of memos, with a look of intense pleasure on his face at the prospect of a closed session with the PM. Happy as a sand boy, or at least as happy as Philip Gould ever allows himself to get. Will Mr Blair ditch him? Hardly. He is too close to the heart of what it means to be New Labour, too useful a guide to the undertow of public opinion and to the risks ahead.

But a Prime Minister eager to show that he is more than the love child of spin and focus-groupery will go to some lengths to emphasise that he is his own man with his own message.

So, Philip Gould may well be encouraged to take on a quieter role and to disseminate his views less widely until the season of the leaks is over and the carnival moves on. Certainly, he will have to change the working habits of a lifetime - the tendency to produce lorry loads of written data. One memo to self is probably already being drafted: "Write fewer memos."

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