Profile; Philip Gould; Why New Labour wear ties

This is the man who tells the party what the voters would like to hear.
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The Independent Online
Amid the post-election gloom of 1992, Labour's pollster and strategist, Philip Gould, sat for hours on end in his London office watching the Olympics on television. But if the telephones were quiet and the atmosphere depressed, the silence was broken periodically. As Sally Gunnell, the sporting hero of the year, sprinted to her gold medal triumph, Gould was on his feet, yelling encouragement at the screen: "Yes, yes, that's what I want, that's what I want".

The outbursts were not untypical. Mr Gould is renowned for his self-absorption. He has, for example, a habit of cogitating as he paces up and down the office, sometimes talking to himself. He is also well-known for his enthusiasm and determination. The words used to describe him are invariably ones like "obsessive", "driven" or "focused" - adjectives that hint both at the transatlantic influences that have played such a part in his career and at another of his undoubted qualities: staying power.

As Labour comes within 15 days of power, after 18 years in the wilderness, it is inconceivable that Mr Gould could be anywhere other than at the heart of the battle. He, after all, was one of the first modernisers who, with his more famous colleague Peter Mandelson, set about the revitalisation of Labour's media strategy in 1985. Two elections later both men are working within a few feet of each other at Labour's campaign headquarters, Millbank Tower. Gould has a desk with a team of four full-time aides, analysing polling (both public and private) and focus groups research, and liaising with the party's advertising agency, its speech-writers and press officers. By the end of the campaign he will, according to Millbank insiders, have produced an avalanche of memos. He is the man who tells the politicians what the voters are thinking, and what to do to win their backing. In a party that has become identified with the focus group, Mr Gould's influence is difficult to overstate.

He is also closer than he has ever been to a Labour leader. Gould and his wife, Gail Rebuck - the head of the publishers Random House - are personal friends of Tony and Cherie Blair. When Gail organised a drinks party in aid of a battered women's refuge last year, Cherie was the guest of honour. The foursome personify the change in the party from a coalition of the poor and dispossessed to a party of the upwardly mobile middle classes.

BUT Mr Gould is no Johnny-come-lately. He climbed aboard a very leaky ship at a time when it was deeply unfashionable. Even if his wife is wealthy, his 12-year odyssey to the threshold of a Labour victory has involved big business sacrifices. He is talented, has considerable charm (when he chooses to deploy it), and is highly marketable. As one fan put it: "Philip could have devoted his energies to money or sex and cocaine. Instead he chose the Labour Party."

That Philip Gould looked to the left was partly a matter of background. Mr Gould's maternal grandmother was a Communist artist who emigrated from Holland. His father, to whom he was very close, was a teacher with a well- developed social conscience. Philip was born in 1950 in Beddington, London, where he was educated at a secondary modern, after failing the 11-plus (he is dyslexic) and rejecting private education as "unfair and unegalitarian". At 16 he left school with one O-level but returned to education, sitting A-levels and winning a place at Sussex University.

There he met Gail although their relationship developed over time. After university they shared two London flats as friends before romance blossomed. They married only in 1985, honeymooning in India. In the meantime Gould had risen rapidly through the ranks of the advertising world, founding an agency with two colleagues, selling out and studying under Charles Handy at the London Business School.

Peter Mandelson provided the bridge into the Labour Party. In 1985 Mandelson was director of communications and, after several letters, Gould and Mandelson met. At the time MORI was Labour's pollster and Gould was brought in parallel to Bob Worcester of MORI. The new man offered something different, in the jargon "qualitative" rather than "quantitative" polling - devoting much energy to focus groups, in which small groups of target voters could be questioned in depth. By 1987 MORI was out in the cold as Gould and a colleague took control of the operation, supported by NOP. Gould helped found the Shadow Communications Agency which brought the best brains of advertising to Labour for free. At a time when American electoral techniques were little known in Britain, Gould - a regular visitor to Washington - became their leading exponent here.

His adoption of American methods was vindicated in 1990. At the Staffordshire South by-election, in the eye of the storm over the poll tax, a solid Conservative seat fell with emphatic ease to Labour under the slogan "vote for what you value". As one source said: "Philip told us what Tory voters were feeling. He gave the campaign the language to make Tory voters feel comfortable to switch over to Labour. These techniques were equally applicable to a general election." Neil Kinnock was impressed, even altering his public behaviour in response to the image problems Gould had identified; the Labour leader stopped smoking in public and smartened up, switching to suits and ties.

It may have been an obvious reform to some, but it was a political minefield in the unmodernised Labour Party. Gould, who famously does not suffer fools, was not the most diplomatic exponent of the changes he knew Labour had to make. For this reason he was kept in the background, though wheeled out, perhaps twice yearly, to make presentations to the Shadow Cabinet, revealing how his proposals worked when tested on his focus groups. It merely added to the mystique surrounding him. As one source put it: "Philip should only be let loose on extremely robust politicians. He has a habit of taking things they believe in and dismissing them ruthlessly. He could be a very destabilising force." His lack of diplomacy cost him dearly when his ally Peter Mandelson left the job of director of communications in 1991 to fight a seat. He had few allies and, when he argued against John Smith, was isolated.

Things got steadily worse after the defeat. Under Mr Smith's leadership Gould was frozen out and attacked by the left as one of the "beautiful people" who had taken Labour away from its roots but failed to deliver a victory. He is an obvious target, partly because of his fascination with America. Gould is well-known in the world of Washington political consultancy and considered a move to the US when there was a question of Gail crossing the Atlantic to further her career. In 1992, after the British election defeat, Gould was invited to the Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock to brief the Democrats' leading campaigner, James Carville, on the Tories' attacks on taxation. But such links only exacerbated the old Labour charge that Gould was the architect of the "Clintonisation" of the Labour Party.

Then there is his marriage to Gail, a highly successful publisher renowned more for her business acumen than her love of old Labour. They enjoy a ritzy lifestyle mixing with writers and authors some of whom were invited to the magnificent, castellated holiday home in the Balearics that the Goulds sold only recently. Their concerns are typical of the middle classes Tony Blair has sought so hard to woo. In their previous home, a mauve-painted house in London's Westbourne Park Road, they became increasingly unhappy with the state education on offer to their two daughters. Only after Philip's spell as a school governor did they take an alternative route: moving home (paying over the odds in the process) to a house in Rochester Terrace, north London, close to Camden School, one of London's finest state secondary schools for girls.

Tony Blair's Labour Party may be a welcoming home, but why has Gould stuck so obsessively to the same job he started in 1985? Many speculate that his success drive, his determination to win a campaign, is rooted partly in the fact that his wife runs a multinational company. This, however, is hardly the whole picture. As one Labour source commented: "There are a number of people at Millbank now who are sitting in that open plan office but don't really know why they are there except that they want to be part of something successful and whizzy. Philip is not one of those. He actively wants to change things. He is strongly motivated and stepped sideways out of a very prosperous career path."

A glance at the Gould curriculum vitae illustrates the point. He worked for Daniel Ortega in his ill-fated election in Nicaragua (the slightly familiar slogan: Con Daniel, todo ser mejor - With Daniel everything will be better), and for Michael Manley in Jamaica. His clients in Europe are socialist or progressive parties. Interest groups he has helped, sometimes unpaid, include Greenpeace and the National Council for Civil Liberties. After the election, assuming the result is as expected, he will probably do more of the same because European socialist parties are fascinated by the Blair phenomenon.

There is even talk of him going to the Lords although this does not quite seem the Gould style. But first there is unfinished business. Veterans of the 1992 campaign can recall the agony of that victory that turned to defeat; one pointed out last week that, at 6pm on polling day, the BBC was predicting a hung parliament. As one ex-colleague said: "You can develop a bit of an obsession when you get involved with these things. You feel you have to have a win - if nothing else to exorcise the ghosts of 1992."

This time Gould wants to be the one with the gold medal, and not the runner-up.