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Where Labour went wrong

Tony Blair’s top pollster, Philip Gould, has been told that he has just months to live. In conversat

Philip Gould was Tony Blair's polling adviser, the guru of the focus group, equally admired and reviled inside the Labour Party. In the new, revised and expanded edition of his book, The Unfinished Revolution (first published in 1998), he assesses New Labour's record in government between 1997 and 2010. Gould has been fighting cancer for several years. Doctors recently told him that he has three months to live, at best.

Jonathan Derbyshire In the updated edition of The Unfinished Revolution, you write that "at no point will the dust settle over New Labour". Yet many in the Labour Party today seem eager to bury it.

Philip Gould It's not meaningful to talk about burying New Labour. I argue that progressive politics is dialectical and that one idea leads to another, then another. The best political ideas continue. New Labour is a powerful collection of ideas - it's a commitment to a politics of synergy, bringing together rights and responsibi­lities, aspiration and compassion. These ideas will not disappear, because they are part of any political project that goes forward.

JD Ed Miliband seems ready to criticise aspects of New Labour's record in office.

PG I would say that Ed, even in government, was always emotionally sceptical about New Labour but rationally accepting of it. He saw the sense of it as a way of winning elections but he wasn't emotionally committed to it.

Ed always wanted more of an unqualified, progressive message, based around equality and ethics - but he knows full well that, in order to win a general election, he will have to win over middle-class voters. You have to win the south, as well as the north. You have to persuade on equality but also win the argument about responsibility, as well as rights.

JD Isn't the language of the "squeezed middle" an attempt to do precisely that - to appeal to those voters who made up such a significant part of Tony Blair's electoral coalition?

PG Of course. Ed has to have a politics that is his own but that takes the best out of what has come before. The "squeezed middle" is crucial, because it's an expression of a sense of unfairness and contributory grievance. Owning the contributory fairness debate will be the most important thing and the Tories want that, for sure. Owning that group will be absolutely essential.

JD How do you assess Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party so far?

PG His best speech was the one that he gave [in June] on the notion of shared responsibility. That's a perfect example of a New Labour speech that Tony would have made. But Ed didn't take responsibility to mean [getting rid of] welfare dependency. He was referring to the rich and powerful in society. I think this theme will take him a very long way.

JD The new portions of your book are concerned with New Labour in government. Blair spent a lot of energy attacking the "forces of conservatism" inside his own party . . .

PG The "forces of conservatism" speech [made in September 1999] was not about the Labour Party; it was about old Britain. Tony is a moderniser. He doesn't much like old Britain, its class structures and all that. The speech didn't land well, though, and he somewhat pulled back from it, but it remained the speech that he appreciated most.

JD Some would argue that Blair was too accepting of globalisation, too relaxed about its disruptive effects. He sometimes seemed in thrall to a kind of vulgar Hegelianism, when he talked about globalisation as an irresistible and ineluc­table historical process.

PG I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that Tony's commitment to globalisation was the articulation of a Hegelian purpose! He may have been too accepting of it but he also saw a huge benefit. He always wanted to be open to it.

At the heart of New Labour was a series of dichotomies and we were always looking for a synthesis. The synthesis that I came to was mutualism, because it seemed to me that if we work together on the basis of shared contribution and shared reward, then sustained success becomes possible.

Tony made the "stakeholder" speech in Singapore [in January 1996] based on Will Hutton's work. It faded away, though it was central to Tony's thinking at the time.

JD New Labour was supposed to be about "traditional values in a modern setting", yet it was often unclear what those values were.

PG I agree with that - but the values of New Labour are not hugely different from the values of Labour. It is the way they are applied that matters. What are those values? I would say social justice, of course; fairness; certainly equality of opportunity.

Contributory fairness is important, too. This came up all the time in the focus groups: the sense that some people are working hard and other people are getting the benefit and that this is unfair. This is a slightly different notion of fairness from the progressive one, which is that people should be treated fairly on the basis of social justice. It would have been better if we had been more explicit about our values. It's one of the things that I feel we could have done better.

If the Labour Party is to move forward, it needs a more explicit sense of purpose, a more expli­cit sense of what it is for. Unless you have a sense of purpose, you can't achieve very much. I've been thinking about this a lot, since I've been ill. I'm not sure if my illness was somehow preordained but it's been such an extraordinary thing - especially at this last stage, when my cancer has returned.

I've been told that I'm going to die sooner rather than later. On one level, this is ghastly but, on another level, it creates such a powerful feeling and you think: "God! Maybe this is preordained or predestined."

I often sit and talk to my wife [the publisher Gail Rebuck] about how much of my life's purpose I added afterwards, retrospectively, and how much of it has been preordained.

JD During these last days, you have been reassessing many of the positions you've taken over the years, notably on Iraq. You say that you still support the invasion on moral grounds. Surely moral considerations must always be balanced by prudential ones? Very little thought was given, certainly inside the Pentagon, to post-invasion planning.

PG I agree that there comes a point at which prag­matic and practical considerations outweigh moral considerations. The question is whether that point had been reached, and I don't agree that it had. It is certain that there was a huge and terrible cost in human lives, but there was a huge and terrible cost in human lives under Saddam Hussein. I think that there was a moral case to deal with him. Iraq today is a democracy of sorts. Hussein has gone and that's a step forward. There comes a point, of course, at which failure to plan turns into moral failure. We haven't reached that point yet.

JD You spend a large part of the book discussing Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown. What was the problem there?

PG Gordon came into government in 1997 with a very clear sense of what he wanted to do, but Tony was a much more protean figure, changing constantly. He knew, broadly speaking, what he wanted to do. He wanted to modernise Britain and reform our public services; he wanted to take the country into the next century. Tony was forever thinking ahead. He was creative, always renewing policies. I think that was a bit disquieting for Gordon.

I remember Gordon phoning me up in 1994, asking, "Should I stand down [in the Labour leadership election]?" I said: "Only if you can accept it." And I don't think he could.

It was very tough for Gordon but it would have been better for him had he been more accepting. The path forward for him would have been much easier and he would have had a better time in government - and he would have become prime minister much earlier.

I was with David Miliband when he lost [the leadership election] in 2010. It was very tough. Gordon lost to a metaphorical brother. David lost to an actual brother. David has got over it, which is a really big achievement.

JD As for the politics of the Blair-Brown relationship, do you think that people forget the extent to which Brown, no less than Blair, wasn't a conventional social democrat?

PG I never saw him as a conventional social democrat. I saw him much more in the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. The Miliband brothers are conventional social democrats - but those two guys [Blair and Brown] were not. Tony was a liberal socialist. As for Gordon, I always felt that he was a really distinctive politician. He admires the United States, the American economic system. In the early days, he was dynamic and unpredictable, an extraordinarily impressive figure. That's discounted, now, but I don't think it should be.

JD Brown's premiership never recovered from the 2007 "election that never was", did it?

PG No, but if he'd called that election, he would have won. And it would have transformed perceptions of Gordon.

JD Why did Brown fail to capitalise politically on his handling of the global financial crisis?

PG I have notes from focus groups during that period, which record people saying things like: "I can't believe he did that. I'm not persuaded by him." I think that voters had too negative [a view of him] and too much of an emotional commitment to Gordon not being prime minister for him to turn things around.

Philip Gould's "The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics For Ever" is published by Abacus (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter