Moderniser who wrote himself out of the script: Donald Macintyre considers the demise of a purposeful and seriously ambitious politician

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Indy Politics
BRYAN GOULD is a loss to the Labour Party, but the loss happened not yesterday - when he announced his intention to become vice-chancellor of Waikato University - but on the eve of the post-election Labour conference in 1992 when he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet.

In effect, Mr Gould was then writing himself out of any script for a future Labour government. He is a loss because, whatever doubts there may have been about his political judgement, he is highly intelligent; because his voice is one of the most articulate and persuasive on the British left; and because he is a first-class communicator - classless and urbane, the very image of modern Labour man.

He is also genuinely civilised and courteous. In the wake of the 1987 election defeat, it seemed as if the political ball was at his feet. He may strike a chord now, complaining that Labour has lost its radical cutting edge. But then he was the moderniser, exhorting the party to accept the aspirations of the upwardly mobile southern electorate, relentlessly pushed by Peter Mandelson, then Labour's image-maker, as the man who could enable Neil Kinnock to drag the party into the late 20th century.

It is ironic that it was Mr Gould who was the first Labour politician to call for the sweeping policy review in the wake of the 1992 election which Mr Kinnock subsequently executed. Yet in the long run it was precisely with the so-called modernising tendency in the party - and especially its economic policy - that Mr Gould found himself most at odds.

So what went wrong? On one level Mr Gould's departure is testament to the deep frustration of 14 years in opposition. For he was a seriously ambitious politician. In the two years that followed the 1987 defeat, he began to think seriously about his prospects of leading the Labour Party.

He certainly had the self- discipline to do it. During the 1987 campaign, he and Mr Mandelson displayed masterly presentational skills at the party's daily press conferences - masking the deeply unpopular aspects of Labour policies on defence, trade union power and renationalisation that dogged the party.

His hostility to the European Union - its origins deep in the New Zealand background of which he spoke eloquently at yesterday's news conference - is probably his most consistent and defining political characteristic.

Yet with his party now converted to the EU, Mr Gould fronted the party's successful European election campaign without ever showing it. And despite his powerful opposition to Labour's espousal of the European exchange rate mechanism, he never deviated from his collective Shadow Cabinet responsibility by making his opposition public until after the general election.

Given that level of serious purpose and ambition, it may be that the game was up when he was trounced in both the leadership and deputy leadership elections of 1992 - having made what was almost certainly a grave error by running in both.

But his problems with John Smith started earlier than that. He would have liked to be Neil Kinnock's shadow Chancellor, the job that Mr Smith got. As trade and industry spokesman, he began to identify more closely with the Labour left - though his critics would argue that this had less to do with natural affinity than what he saw as a route to power.

When he took on the environment portfolio he fell out with Mr Smith over his plans for a mixed property and income tax to replace the poll tax. Without a natural base on the left, he became progressively more isolated - culminating in the failed leadership challenge and subsequent resignation from the Shadow Cabinet.