Philip Gould, Lord Gould of Brookwood, who has died of cancer aged 61, was among the closest and most valued advisers to Tony Blair during his years as leader of the opposition and prime minister. The results of his polling and the many focus groups he conducted were always eagerly anticipated in Downing Street. The two most common questions Blair would ask his staff were “Where’s Alastair?” and “Where’s Cherie?” A close third was “Where’s Philip?”
Gould offered something that every prime minister craves, but few get in sufficient measure. He provided a swift and frank assessment of where public opinion stood on any particular issue at any particular time. And he gave his advice wholly unvarnished. He was never tempted to tell his political masters what he thought they wanted to hear, rather than what, in his judgment, they needed to hear.
Above all, he thought they needed to hear the views of those who were not traditional Labour supporters but who contributed to the party’s huge majority in the 1997 general election. Winning and maintaining their support was his self-proclaimed mission in life. To those who accused Labour of being too readily influenced by the wealthy, the City, the small-c conservatives and the celebrities, Gould was the answer. He kept the party in touch with the opinions of a much more representative segment of British society, the hard-working majority.
Gould was born in Beddington, south London, into a middle-class, suburban environment of the kind that he would go on to target to help resurrect and sustain Labour as a party of government. But it could never be said of him, as it was of Blair, that he might just as easily have become a Conservative. Gould’s parents were left of centre and, as soon as he developed a political consciousness of his own, he knew he was Labour.
He joined the party at the age of 15, while still a pupil at a secondary modern school near Woking in Surrey. His father had been headteacher of his primary school but Gould failed his 11-plus and left school at 16 with one O-level, in geography. His experience in an education system that seemed to discourage ambition made him a passionate opponent of selection. It also left him determined to get the university education his teachers had said was not for pupils like him.
After five years in unfulfilling employment, during which time he was also to be found at many a 1960s political demonstration and rock concert, he returned to full-time education at East London College, Leytonstone, where he took four A-levels. The opportunity to go to university was now open to him and his fascination with the political process was reflected in his choice of course. He graduated with a BA in politics from Sussex University and then went on to secure a master’s in political theory at the London School of Economics.
At university he met Gail Rebuck, whom he married in 1985. It was an important year for him in many other ways too. After trying his hand in advertising, he added a degree from the London Business School to his CV and founded his own political consultancy, Philip Gould Associates, which he ran from a back bedroom at home. Although he had no clients at first he was already making important and influential contacts. Peter Mandelson, whom he had met for the first time a year previously, was now Labour’s director of communications. Mandelson gave Gould his first consultancy contract and a significant political partnership was born.
At Mandelson’s request, Gould co-ordinated the Shadow Communications Agency, a network of professionals offering their advice free to a cash-strapped party. The left, more influential then than in recent years, hated the results, but the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, desperate for power, supported the new, slicker, more voter-friendly approach to political communications. It came to be symbolised by the red rose emblem.
Less visible but no less important was Gould’s work to discover what the voting public was thinking and how it might be persuaded to view Labour in a more favourable light. Private opinion polling was nothing new, but the systematic use of focus groups – small, representative samples of a target section of the electorate brought together and questioned at length – was. By the time of the 1987 election, Gould was conducting both kinds of survey at least once a day. Even before polling day itself, Gould’s research had revealed that Labour still had a long way to go.
He continued to work for Kinnock throughout the next five years while others, including Mandelson, went off to pursue their own interests and careers. The departure of Margaret Thatcher from No 10 and her replacement by John Major appeared to present a great opportunity. Gould knew better and put together Labour’s “War Book” for the 1992 election while privately believing victory was unlikely.
He had supported Kinnock as somebody who understood the need to modernise the Labour party. When, in the wake of yet another defeat, Kinnock resigned, Gould too was out in the cold. Many in the party blamed what John Prescott had called the unelected “beautiful people” around Kinnock for the defeat, and in that number they counted Gould. John Smith, who replaced Kinnock, had little time for Gould, Mandelson or the other self-proclaimed “modernisers”.
Gould wasn’t wanted in London but he was wanted in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Bill Clinton was on the road to the White House and wanted to learn from Labour’s experience. It was a two-way street and in a few short weeks Gould saw first-hand how a candidate from the left of centre could win. But when he returned to the UK and started to argue privately and publicly for the “Clintonisation” of Labour, he was told by Smith that he was being disruptive. Gould was frozen out by the leader’s office, but two of the party’s most senior figures were much more receptive to his ideas – Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, and the home affairs spokesman, Tony Blair.
On 12 May 1994, Gould’s world changed forever. Like many, he was shocked and saddened by Smith’s sudden death, but in it he saw the opportunity finally to bring about a truly radical transformation of the party. Gould supported Blair from the outset, despite having warmer personal relations with Brown, who had until then been assuming he was Smith’s natural successor.
Gould started to bombard Blair with polling and focus group evidence and long memos, replete with strategic advice. The memos got shorter at Blair’s request, but the flow never let up. Gould’s findings would land on Blair’s desk on an almost daily basis for the next 13 years. Blair won the leadership with ease but Gould was there constantly to remind him that winning power in the country was still anything but certain. Gould was always an advocate of change, an uber-moderniser for whom no reform of policy or procedure was too radical. It ensured him a place at the heart of Blair’s inner circle, but just as surely condemned him in the eyes of those who believed Labour’s purpose and very soul were being systematically destroyed.
Gould’s memos were intended as private advice, but the public got a flavour of what Blair was reading when, on more than one occasion, they found their way into the hands of journalists. In 1995 the Guardian talked of “Labour’s secret strategy”, revealing Gould’s suggestions for a centralised power structure. His memo had warned that Labour was still not ready for government. Two years later, however, it was, and Gould felt justifiably proud of his contribution to Blair’s overwhelming victory.
It was never in Gould’s character to rest on his laurels, or allow others the luxury of doing so. No sooner was Blair in Downing Street than Gould was working on a strategy for keeping him there. He set up a new transatlantic agency with two Clinton advisers, Stan Greenberg and James Carville, and took time off only to complete his book, The Unfinished Revolution (1998), which became a bible for how to win elections. It later became essential reading for the Conservatives as they tried to do for David Cameron what Gould helped do for Blair.
His elevation to the peerage as Lord Gould of Brookwood in 2004 was in recognition of 20 years of service to the modernisation of Labour. At the 2008 conference Brown presented him with a special service award, and, while he would continue to offer Downing Street advice whenever he could, he was then already fighting cancer of the oesophagus. It would weaken him physically but never mentally. It took him to a different place personally but never politically. Gould remained loyal to New Labour, or more particularly to the values that underlie New Labour, until the day of his death.
He is survived by Gail and their daughters, Georgia and Grace. Lance Price, the Guardian
• Philip Gould, Lord Gould of Brookwood, political adviser, born 30 March 1950; died 6 November 2011
Ed Miliband: “Philip Gould was an exceptional man and his death is an exceptional loss. He was Labour to his core, and today, as the Labour Party, we mourn for one of our own. He was rightly known as a pathbreaking political strategist. His friends will also remember an extraordinary human being. Warm, funny, engaging, deeply emotional and loving to all those he knew. Nowhere was he more extraordinary than in the final years of his life: battling his cancer like a political campaign that could be mastered and won. Then accepting death with courage and bravery. His contribution to Labour politics was enormous. His work and commitment helped change the lives of millions of his fellow citizens for the better. By helping Labour to win three elections, he helped rebuild our schools, save our NHS and repair the fabric of Britain. Many who benefit will never know his name but will have better lives in part because of his work.
“In an age when people are cynical about politics, he was someone who was in it for the best of reasons: because of his deep rooted concern for the people of Britain and his wish to make Labour their voice. I know from our conversations over the last year he would have made a big contribution to Labour in the years ahead because he had an extraordinary ability to understand changing times and how politics could and should respond to that call. He taught those fortunate enough to know him much about how to live, and in the years of his illness, much about how to die. His memory will live on in his wonderful family and all those who had the privilege to call him their friend.”
Tony Blair: “Philip was such a huge part of the renaissance of the Labour Party. To me he was my guide and mentor, a wise head, a brilliant mind, and a total rock when a storm was raging. He became indispensable. He was always a constant advocate for the British people, their hopes and anxieties. So his political contribution was immense.
“But then as his illness gripped him, he became something more. In facing death, he grew emotionally and spiritually into this remarkable witness to life’s meaning and purpose. No one who saw him in those last months was unchanged by him. And the bond between him and his wonderful family was a joy to see. I feel very proud and privileged to have known him and to have been his friend.”
Alastair Campbell: “Even when he entered what he called ‘the death zone’, Philip Gould brought hope and happiness to others – not accidentally, but deliberately, as one of his final, and selfless, acts of strategy. He was constantly asking himself not just how to make things easier for his wife Gail, and their daughters Georgia and Grace, but how in talking about his death he might help others, and what he might write and say now that could help the Labour Party in the future.
He was a team player, and his team was Labour. ‘Pollster’ doesn’t really say the half of it. He was an integral member of the inner team that worked to get Labour back into power, and stay there for more than the usual single Parliament breathing space for the Tories. His focus groups, far from being an exercise in PR, were a way of making sure that the kind of people he felt Labour forgot in the wilderness years had a direct voice to the top of politics. He was not a speechwriter but he was the most brilliant analyst of speech drafts. His notes on them always improved the final product. He was also great in a crisis, and always able to lift people and campaigns when they were low. He was that rare thing in politics – someone who was strategic, tactical and empathetic all in one. He was a rock.
But it is not Philip Gould the strategist, nor Philip Gould the gutsy fighter against cancer that I mourn today, but Philip Gould the friend who made our lives better, and Philip Gould the positive life force who brought hope and energy to all he did. There are many ways to judge people you know. Two important ones for me are how they relate to my children, and what their own children are like. Georgia and Grace are wonderful young women who are a tribute to a mother and father who always led busy lives, but who were always utterly devoted to their daughters. As for Philip’s relationship with my own children, they loved him for the fun, the joy, the support and the friendship he brought into our lives.
TB could never understand how Philip and I could spend so much time working together, then go on holiday together as well. Partly of course it was a way of carrying on working. We shared workaholic tendencies and we shared an obsession with doing all we could to help Labour win and, once we had won the first time, win again. Some of our best strategies, ideas, lines and slogans came from long holiday chats occasionally interrupted by Gail and Fiona asking if ‘you two’ ever had a conversation that didn’t mention TB-GB. (answer not many, even to the end).
But more than that he was just enormous fun to be with. Though all too often he created mayhem by losing passports or wallets or jackets (just as occasionally he would lose our entire election plans on a train coming back from one of his focus groups) he was the organiser, the originator of trips and tournaments, madcap events that turned inevitably into holiday highlights. And when times were tough, there was no better friend. Always loyal, but understanding that loyalty required honesty and frankness, and ideas about how to make things better.
Fiona and I saw him for the last time yesterday morning, and we knew we were saying goodbye. It was painful of course, but there was a magnificence to it all too. He had fought the cancer harder than anyone could. But he was reconciled, and he had helped Gail and the girls, and all his friends, to this point too. He always needed a campaign, and the illness became the campaign. We called the cancer Adolf, perhaps the ultimate enemy. Yes, I said, this means you are Churchill. He liked that. We had slogans for the fight. He had a grid of his chemo visits, when to take his pills. Early on in the illness, he told me he had had a petscan. What is a petscan? I asked. ‘It’s like the exit poll,’ he said. ‘And how is it looking?’ ‘Ok, but all within the margin of error’.
For once, he has lost a campaign. But he had a lot of wins along the way. He has virtually written two books while ill, one on his cancer, which he was working on to the last hours of consciousness, and the other a wonderfully defiant update of his Unfinished Revolution, with the basic message that New Labour changed Britain and British politics for the better. We did, in no small measure thanks to Philip Gould”.