Here are some of the things I learned from my friend Philip Gould, whose sad death was announced this morning.
He taught me there is nothing inherently suspect or reductive about political messaging. I first met Philip around the time when Tony Blair become leader of the Labour Party. Because of the polling he had done after the 1992 election, Philip knew that a great deal of the resistance to Labour among swing voters had a basis in emotions. Not only was it that voters didn’t think Labour was the Party of aspiration, they even felt that voting Labour was the act of someone who lacked ambition for themselves. For Philip, whose own politics were all about raising aspirations across society, overcoming this hurdle was vital to getting the public to listen to Labour’s offer. This is why Tony Blair laid so much emphasis on supporting the desire to get on at all levels of society, not just among the least well off. Philip’s point was not that emotion and reasoning were in opposition, but that you couldn’t get people to take your ideas seriously unless you had helped them get past their barriers.
This didn’t mean Philip didn’t care about policy, he was fascinated by it and, unlike many other political strategists or pollsters, he always recognised that it was the policies not the message that changed things. This is part of the second lesson. Arguably, up to 1992 Labour had felt that connecting with swing voters was about dealing with the worst negatives and trying to modernise the Party’s image. Central to Philip’s strategy was understanding that everything had to be in alignment: the message, the policies, the organisation, the critique of political opponents. In other words modernisation of the Party had to be comprehensives and authentic or the public - whose common sense he always respected - would see straight through it.
In a way these are the easy messages and over the years I’ve applied them in many different settings. The other things I learnt are harder to apply, because they reflect what a special man Philip was.
There was his incredible generosity and loyalty. Philip was always close to power, never more than a phone call away from Blair or Brown; the man two Prime Ministers turned to when they needed insight and advice. Nor was he far from the fray when things got difficult; when public support crumbled or the Blair Brown conflict worsened. Yet he was such a warm and open man. He wore his importance lightly and managed to remain trusted by everyone without ever holding back on what he thought was right.
As a mere Party apparatchik in the run up to the 1997 election, Philip was the only one of inner circle who always seemed to have time for me and other staffers. More than that, in a world of self-importance, his humour extended to a frontier beyond most people – himself. Reflecting his positive disposition, he liked good news and tried to minimise the bad. One late evening at Milbank with nothing else to do I constructed a graph with two lines. One was labelled ‘Labour’s poll rating’ the other, ‘Philip’s trust in polls’. The joke was that the two lines followed each other with any Labour dip being accompanied by him pouring scorn in the reliability of its source. Philip thought it was hilarious.
And then there is the lesson he has taught all of us about courage, dignity and wisdom in the face of ravaging illness and a terminal diagnosis. As Philip says in this amazing interview, no one wants to be told they are dying but being in that position makes it possible to see the world and what matters with a clarity not available to those of us caught up in the exaggerated importance of day to day striving.
I knew Philip Gould for nearly twenty years but there were long periods when we didn’t meet. There are thousands of people who had the privilege of knowing him better than me and my thoughts are with his beloved and wonderful family, but I know I will not be alone today in reflecting how the time I had with Philip had such an impact on me and that I hope I am a wiser and better person for it.
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