Obituary: Philip Gould - One of the main architects of New Labour and a pivotal figure in its electoral success

Baron Gould of Brookwood, political adviser
Baron Gould of Brookwood, political adviser
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Born: 30 March, 1950, in Beddington, south London. Died: 7 November, 2011, aged 61

PHILIP Gould was considered by many at Westminster to have been as important to the success of the New Labour revolution as Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson or even Tony Blair, yet he remained the least well-known of that ground-breaking group which reshaped first the Labour Party’s politics, then British politics, through the 1990s.

Even among the political classes, Gould was often known only as “Tony Blair’s favourite pollster”. He was viewed as a back-office analyst, a strategist and a forecaster of political moods but he was much, much more than that.

He introduced the new methods of focus-group politics, of polling and of sound-bite messages that became fundamental to the success of New Labour and which have since been copied by many others.

During his years working alongside Blair, Gould did occasionally rouse the ire of Labour traditionalists who believed he was selling out their values to the whims of populism and poll numbers. But he always believed those critics failed to understand what drove him.

Gould, who died at the weekend at the age of 61, always insisted that he would never betray Labour values because the Labour Party was his rock.

He joined the Labour Party when he was just 16; indeed, he had his second Labour Party membership card, from 1967, stuck to the wall in front of his desk in Labour headquarters throughout his years working alongside Blair.

“For me, there was never any doubt: I was Labour,” he said in 2000.

Gould grew up in Woking in Surrey, where his father was a headmaster.

This upbringing in the traditionally Conservative suburban south-east of England had a profound effect on him.

Gould believed Labour had to be as relevant to people like him, from his background, as it was to its traditional supporters in its industrial heartlands if it was to enjoy sustained and continued electoral success.

Gould’s early academic progress was slow but he was ultimately successful enough at East London College to secure a place at Sussex University in 1971 studying politics.

Enthused by both the subject and academia, Lord Gould went on to the London School of Economics in 1974 to do a masters degree in political thought.

For the next ten years, he pursued a career in advertising and it was there that he started to formulate the ideas that would transform the Labour Party. Gould knew there had to be a link between selling products and selling ideas and that the same principles which determined the success of commercial products could be applied to political messages.

In 1985, Gould founded his own polling and strategy company, Philip Gould Associates. That same year he was introduced to Peter Mandelson at a dinner party and the two men realised they had a lot in common.

Mandelson hired Gould to work on Labour’s 1987 election campaign.

That campaign was unsuccessful but Gould had done enough by then to become a key member of the group within the party which had started forging the New Labour path. This included Blair, Gordon Brown, Campbell and Mandelson.

They all saw that Gould offered something more than other pollsters – he had a vision, not just of where the party could go but also a plan of how to get it there.

Campbell said this week: “He was a strategist. In politics, tactical minds are two a penny, but strategic minds often aren’t, and Philip brought real, hard strategy to politics.”

After Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994, Gould started preparing the groundwork for the 1997 election campaign, making widespread use of focus groups to test ideas and messages.

Virtually unheard of in British politics at that time, focus groups politics brought together small gatherings of voters who were asked their opinions, not just of government policy and of potential policies but which politicians and phrases they liked best. It was this combination of intensive and specific polling, focus group testing, and the keen shaping of messages – developed during Gould’s years in advertising – that helped New Labour win that 1997 election and win it so comfortably.

Gould stayed by Blair’s side throughout his years in office and he was ennobled in 2004 as Baron Gould of Brookwood.

Gould had two early run-ins with cancer before the final and third bout of cancer of the oesophagus which caused his death this week.

In his final television interview in September this year, Lord Gould said he believed that the “nastiness” of politics had probably played some role in the development of his cancer.

“What would have been better for me would have been to have said, ‘I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well, and then just push it back a little bit,’” he told the BBC.

“And of course the other side of it is that it’s only because I’m an obsessive nutcase when it comes to politics that I’ve done what I’ve done.”

He also used that interview to reaffirm his commitment to the Labour Party – and displayed his rather roguish sense of humour at the same time – saying: “I was born under a Labour Government.

“I am determined to die under a Labour Government – so they had better get a move on.”

Lord Gould is survived by his wife, Gail Rebuck, who is head of publishing company Random House, and his two daughters, Georgia and Grace. HAMISH MACDONELL