Like many in the Labour Party, I was deeply saddened by the death of Philip Gould earlier this week. The fact that it was anticipated makes the news no less tragic. I didn’t know him well, but I’ve sat in the same meeting as him several times, and watched him at work.
His role was simple. Like the little boy in the story about the Emperor’s new clothes, his job was to speak the truth that no-one else dared to. His capacity to speak the truth to power meant his advice was sought out by the cleverer Labour politicians of his times. What separated Philip Gould from most purveyors of opinion and advice, was that what he said was more than the product of gut instinct and personal prejudice. It was anchored in the views of many thousands of members of the public who sat in his focus groups in places like Harlow and Stevenage. These were the people who shaped his political outlook in the 1980s and 1990s, and gave him the insight to advise Kinnock, Clinton, Blair and Brown.
Gould’s politics were fashioned, not in the urban backstreets of some Labour heartland seat, but in what he describes in The Unfinished Revolution as the
‘…twilight suburbia, where post-war council estates nestled alongside small, detached red-brick Victorian villas.’
But Gould didn’t merely reflect the views of this slice of Middle England, like some mirror. He distilled what he heard, and made it into a political strategy. His strategic approach, which dove-tailed perfectly into the journey that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell were on, was obvious. Well, obvious from the vantage point of three Labour victories. At the time it seemed radical to some of the comrades. It was that society had changed, the electorate had changed, but the Labour Party hadn’t. If you accepted that truth, then the only honest position was that the Labour Party had to change too. That’s what made us modernisers. We wanted the Labour Party to not only survive, but win an election.
Gould ‘got’ aspiration, and his continual concern was that the Labour Party didn’t. He wrote:
‘The party I loved instinctively was to betray the people who lived here, its natural supporters: ordinary people with suburban dreams who worked hard to improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth. These people wanted sensible, moderate policies which conformed to their understanding and their daily lives.’
This idea, that working class people and middle class people have a shared ambition, articulated in subtly different ways, to get on in life was best encapsulated by another Labour hero who died all too young: David Cairns. He said that Labour needed to understand why anyone would want a conservatory. If you understand why anyone wants a conservatory, you can understand their views on welfare reform, immigration, Europe, the NHS and school discipline. If you are perplexed by, or worse puritanical about, anyone’s desire to put decking in their garden, to buy an expensive handbag, or go to Disneyworld, then you are unlikely to be able to construct a political platform that will attract them.
Gould’s central charge about the Labour Party was that it had failed to understand ambition and aspiration:
‘Labour had failed to understand that the old working-class was becoming a new middle-class: aspiring, consuming, choosing what was best for themselves and their families. They had outgrown crude collectivism and left it behind in the supermarket car-park. I knew this, because they were my life.’
But his analysis – stark, challenging and difficult though it was – led to a political programme. It led to New Labour, and the programmes and pledge cards which won us landslides.
Crucially, Gould was about understanding the future. He took his endless focus groups, and synthesised the voices of hard-working citizens into a sense of what was coming next. His values were Labour to the core. His last political act was to vote in the House of Lords against the Government’s NHS Bill. But his application of values was to modern problems and concerns. They were a way of explaining the world, not a telescope into the past. I don’t think anyone that knew him would say he was weighed down by Labour tradition.
If you seek a monument to Philip Gould, you might consider the achievements of the 13 years of Labour Government. But those achievements are all temporary, and might be gone by the time of the next election. Far better is to dedicate ourselves to a Labour victory in the places which deliver a Labour government: Harlow, Stevenage, Crawley, Dartford and the suburbs that shaped Philip Gould.
That means a Labour Party absolutely in tune with the people who go to work, pay their taxes, obey the law, and want a Government which gives them a hand when they need it, but otherwise stays out of the way; the kind of people who, if they caught a glimpse of the protestors outside St Paul’s on their TVs, would ask not: ‘are they part of a new global movement?’, but rather ‘why aren’t they at work?’