Parliament and Politics: Political star who faces the threat of a fall - The Labour leadership contender Bryan Gould, who says out loud what others are not sure they should even think, talks to Nicholas Timmins

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BRYAN GOULD is unarguably one of Labour's greater assets. The open face, the ready smile, southern aspect and voter-friendliness have played many a starring role in Labour campaigns.

His fascination with ideas and willingness to say out loud what others are not even sure they should be thinking has given him a wide appeal outside his party - as well as lining up both friends and enemies within it.

His decision to stand for Labour's leadership the moment it became clear that Neil Kinnock was going has legitimised John Smith's succession. Instead of Labour's shadow Chancellor just walking into the job - his hold on it tarnished by allegations of a joint stitch-up by Neil Kinnock and the unions - he will win the leadership next Saturday. Thumping majorities are expected in all three sections of Labour's electoral college, the unions, the constituencies and the MPs.

For good or ill, and disasters aside, Mr Smith will be unchallengeable, and it will be Mr Gould he has to thank.

And while Mr Smith has talked none too precisely about Labour facing difficult, even painful, questions and decisions, it is Mr Gould who from day one has poured out difficult questions and has occasionally even offered possible solutions.

His thanks for this next Saturday is going to be something quite close to humiliation. Not only will Mr Smith walk the leadership contest, as yesterday's On the Record survey showed; Mr Gould also looks set to come a poor third in the deputy leadership fight. If anyone takes Margaret Beckett to a second ballot it will be John Prescott, whose singing of Labour's traditional socialist songs has struck more chords than Mr Gould's distinctly less comfortable message. And just to compound the position, Mr Gould's seat on Labour's national executive may also be in question.

Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have all declared and, however the sums are done, there is not room on the NEC for all of them - Mr Gould, and Messrs Blunkett, Cook, Prescott, Benn and Skinner, the MPs who currently hold the seats.

Mr Gould's frustration has become obvious. 'A premature election, a ridiculous electoral college and campaigns that have done their best to avoid political debate have done the Labour Party no service at all,' he said. He has accused his rivals of seeking to appeal to vested interests rather than win arguments, and has told the party it is in danger of 'sleep-walking to a further defeat'.

Yet Mr Gould remains in remarkably good spirits, still hoping that if Labour's leadership contest has not produced the debate he believes the party needs, the party may yet get round to it. 'I am not sure that it can be done,' he said. 'But if it isn't done, we are sunk. I don't think the party has even begun to grapple with the depth of the problem we face.'

He sees it still exhausted and stunned by defeat, looking more for retrenchment than the challenge of either new ideas or fresh analysis. Mr Gould will carry on arguing his corner - a Keynesian view of the world that may be creeping back into fashion - for a party that moves away from simple redistributive welfarism to a belief in opportunity.

Time and again, he accuses Labour of a failure of analysis on past policies - its opposition to council house sales, for example, rather than acceptance of it but an insistence that fresh housing be built.

He still wants an end to 'politics by label' where certain positions are deemed to be left or right, correct or wrong 'but we never have any debate about the merits of the argument but are simply expected to line up behind the appropriate banner'.

The party needs 'to be brave' on the union link, he says. He wants it kept but says party members have to have the majority of votes, perhaps a 70/30 split at the party conference, rather than the 50/50 that the big union leaders look prepared to accept.

'We can't expect to attract and keep members if we treat them badly, and one way of treating them badly is to tell them their views don't matter.' For the unions, the question is 'do they want comprehensive control of a party which, because of that control, never becomes the government . . . Do they require as a quid pro quo for their financial support a substantial influence, but no more than that, in a party that does have a chance of becoming the government?'.

Throughout the leadership campaign, Mr Gould has tended to find himself characterised - as the anti-union candidate because he was the first to publicly question the union link; as the anti-European candidate because he does not believe the way the exchange rate mechanism works is good for Britain; as the anti-socialist candidate because he was the first to ask what Labour actually meant by an attachment to universal benefits. On each, Mr Gould's position is subtler than his opponents would wish.

And on these as well as on a host of other issues, he wishes the party would have the argument on its merits. 'We have made progress,' he said. 'I used to say it would be a healthy day when it was no longer possible to say of anybody with certainty that he or she was left or right. We have got to that position. But it's partly because the old certainties have gone and we haven't got any new ones.'

In the search for new ones, Mr Gould will be there. By refusing to duck the difficult issues and by legitimising the succession, Mr Gould has done his state some service. His supporters and some of those voting for Mr Smith might feel next Saturday that Mr Gould deserved rather better than he got.

(Photograph omitted)