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Breaking the barricade

Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life - review.

Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life
Edited by Dennis Kavanagh
Palgrave Macmillan, 200pp, £18.99

Friends of the late Philip Gould from across and beyond the political spectrum celebrate his life in this collection of essays edited by Dennis Kavanagh. It is a starry cast, including Alastair Campbell, David Miliband, Peter Mandelson, James Purnell, James Harding and Peter Hyman, full of stories about New Labour and Philip’s larger-than-life personality.

Philip was an unusual compound. He was an ardent Labourite from Woking, who never lost touch with his suburban upbringing in what he called the “land that Labour forgot”; a guy who had failed the 11-plus yet had an intellectual approach to political strategy (“Strategy does not exist unless it is written down”); a committed Blairite who straddled the Blair/Brown divide at its most bitter and had good relations with Tories, too. In his contribution, Mandelson writes that “the one thing” that irked him about Philip “was his ability never to make enemies”. “Why couldn’t I manage that conjuring trick?” Mandelson adds ruefully.

As a political strategist, Philip had two special qualities. First, he was honest. In his introduction to the 2011 edition of Philip’s book The Unfinished Revolution, Tony Blair identified this as the most important lesson for Labour: “Start with an honest analysis of why you are in opposition, not in government.”

In my experience, honesty is the exception rather than the rule among political strategists. Too often, they tell the leader what he wants to hear, particularly about his popularity and indispensability. And too often, key policy changes are taboo because they are too internally difficult. When I was pioneering public service reform for Blair, Philip was constantly urging boldness, despite the controversy within the party. I remember him saying, “Out there, they think we are spending money like water and they want to see big – big – change. They particularly don’t like those ‘bog standard’ com prehensives. They want every school to be like Camden School for Girls [the outstanding state secondary school attended by his daughters].”

Honesty went hand in hand with a second trait: Philip’s belief that – indeed, his obsession with how – Labour could and should be a party of all communities and all classes. Labour needed to be as relevant and representative in Woking as in Wolverhampton. If it wasn’t, then, in Philip’s view, Labour would not only lose elections. It would be betraying its political and moral mission.

Mandelson recalls that when he and Philip started modernising the party’s presentation under Neil Kinnock – the prelude to modernising its policy systematically under Blair and Gordon Brown – they were roundly attacked for daring to appeal to the affluent and aspirational. Ron Todd, then leader of the
Transport and General Workers’ Union, accused them of selling out to “the trendy, upwardly mobile middle classes”. “Frankly,” writes Mandelson, “these were precisely the people Philip and I thought we should be reaching out to.”

To my mind, this was Philip’s most daring quality. His vision was for Labour to be a genuinely cross-community national movement, at a time when many in the party, at all levels, believed class conflict was fundamental to its raison d’être and that Labour could only be on one side of the social barricade. This gave rise to one of Blair’s best lines: that in place of its founding mission as “the political wing of the trade unions”, Labour’s modern mission was to be “the political wing of the British people”.

How much did Philip influence Blair? I don’t think he much affected his fundamental thinking. He used to say that he didn’t need focus groups to tell him what people thought, let alone what he should think. He was an instinctive, intuitive politician, whose background gave him a close rapport with the aspirant and the middle class. I recall him saying that his dad once told him he had “become a Tory” because he wanted to get on and wanted his children to get on, including by private education, “as if getting on and being middle class meant you had to be a Tory. I knew we had to change that mindset.”

However, Philip helped give Tony the courage of his convictions. He also helped develop another of New Labour’s key attributes: the concept of the “permanent campaign”.

Philip always behaved as if an election was about to happen and was about to be lost. Whatever alienated the people in his focus groups became a major issue and urgent action was needed “to get back on their side”. The imperative for “reconnection” was his most persistent theme after 1997.

During the Blair government, I was ambivalent – at times impatient – with the permanent campaign. I thought it made Tony (before the Iraq war, at any rate) too risk-averse, too unwilling to spend the vast political capital he had accumulated and too focused on shortterm tactics rather than long-term reform. It is certainly true that, in the early years of his premiership, Tony spent far more time discussing media and political management than policy – and the composition of his staff (dominated by communications and party advisers) reflected this.

By contrast, he had a mere handful of serious policy specialists and some of these were marginalized and did not stay long. Tellingly, there was no head of the No 10 policy unit in the early months of the Blair administration, until the appointment of David Miliband.

However, after two frustrating years in the wilderness of opposition, I have more sympathy with the permanent campaign. The solution is not to do more “government” by doing less “campaigning” but to do the two together in an integrated way. Prime ministers who lose their popularity aren’t somehow freer to govern. They are just weak and soon become extinct.

Margaret Thatcher might be thought an exception but this is more apparent than real until her final poll tax folly. Until that point, although often behind in the polls, she divided her opposition brilliantly, largely because so much of what she was doing – council house sales, cut-price shares in the privatised industries, her strong positions on defence and law and order – was popular in the political middle ground, although rejected by Labour, and was prioritised accordingly.

Some saw in Philip the rise of the political consultant in the American mould. He was interested in the US and followed the Clinton campaigns; a few US Democrat consultants worked alongside him in the Blair and Brown campaigns (including Stan Greenberg, who contributes an essay to this book). One fact, however, speaks to the difference. Philip never had a desk in No 10. And he never wanted one, either.

Andrew Adonis was a member of the last Labour cabinet. His book “Education, Education, Education” is published by Biteback (£12.99).

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special