Leading Article: Bryan Gould's parting message

BRYAN GOULD is a paradoxical politician. One of the chief inspirations of Labour's modernisation and policy review, he maintains a fervent Euro-scepticism that harks back to the Wilson years. His attachment to Keynesian macroeconomics and interventionist spending seems anachronistic. Though recognised as a brilliant communicator on television and a leading thinker within the party, he has a detached political style, often leaving even close allies in the dark about his intentions. He placed himself unnecessarily in the political wilderness following his failure to win the party leadership in 1992.

Mr Gould's announcement yesterday that he intends to quit politics - just as Labour is looking increasingly electable - is yet another example of his individual modus operandi. John Smith, though disturbed that Mr Gould's timing distracts attention from the Tory crisis, can take comfort that the decision is not a seismic shock for his party. Indeed, the loss of a leading anti-European promises Mr Smith even less trouble from his Euro-sceptics, while John Major faces further struggles with his own tougher breed.

Nevertheless, Mr Gould's departure is a considerable loss to Labour. The parliamentary party still has a surfeit of woolly thinking and a sheepish mentality with which a New Zealander such as Mr Gould will be familiar. It cannot afford to lose politicians of his calibre.

Mr Gould's parting shot at the party leadership also rings true. Labour, as he suggests, has failed to convince voters what it stands for. Focusing on the Government's incompetence is all very well. But, as Mr Gould recognised while co-ordinating the 1987 general election campaign, it is no substitute for sound policies. The electorate could opt for the devil it knows if a credible alternative has not been laid out.

Labour's policy of waiting for the Tories to lose may be tactically sound at the moment, but as a strategy it is mistaken. Mr Gould's grand plan - extra spending, higher taxation and borrowing and a stand-off from Europe - would be an election loser. But at least he has a big idea that is distinct from the colourless neo-Conservatism that characterises official party policy. There is little sign of Labour generating an electorally palatable master concept: Tory self-destructiveness has induced complacency within party ranks.

Bill Clinton succeeded in presenting the US electorate with a convincing story that explained why voters were feeling insecure, communities were breaking up and crime seemed rampant. He offered convincing solutions for people who (he said) were working harder, for longer, for less. He filled a vacuum left by an administration that seemed ideologically bankrupt.

Labour faces a similar task and opportunity, which will be the harder without Mr Gould's fertile mind. If the party is to win the next election, it must stop fooling itself that it can do so without taking up the intellectual challenge that he relished.