Philip Gould, the best listener in politics
Posted on 8 November 2011 | 8:11am
With thanks to The Guardian for asking me to pen a tribute to Philip for today’s paper, and thanks also for the headline, below is the piece I wrote. Yesterday was a pretty wretched day for his many friends, but the reactions of so many people to his passing were wonderful, and brought a lot of comfort to his family. The funeral will be held next Tuesday November 15 at 4pm, All Saints Margaret Street, London W1W 8JG. Family, friends and colleagues all welcome.
Donations in Philip's memory should be sent to the Royal Marsden Cancer
Charity, 6 Fulham Road, SW3 6JJ or online at www.royalmarsden.org/donate Funds raised will be held and used in his memory for the research and treatment of oesophageal cancer.
The outpouring of warmth and love for Philip Gould across the political websites and social networks on Monday was acknowledgement of his rare talent and remarkable personality. There were heartfelt tributes from Labour leaders and professional strategists across the spectrum; and heartfelt tears from Labour party staff and supporters who know what a contribution he made.
Often described as Tony Blair‘s favourite pollster, he was so much more than that. He was one of the big engines of a campaign machine that reversed a trend in which Labour’s historical role was to provide occasional short periods in office so that an exhausted Tory party could get its breath back and return to power. But Philip was no machine character. His politics flowed from deep values and beliefs which became more spiritual with time. He came from a lower middle-class family, and he believed the political elite, including Labour in the wilderness years, had forgotten about lower middle-class families.
Rightly people have said he brought greater professionalism to Labour campaigns after Peter Mandelson hired him to advise the party under Neil Kinnock. Yet he could also be hopelessly disorganised, forever mislaying coats and bags, phones and passports, even our entire election plans. What he did best was ensure that the voice of ordinary, decent British families was always heard at the top table of British politics. That was the real purpose of focus groups. He saw them not as consumer-led public relations, but as profoundly democratic. Politicians have to lead, of course. But they also have to listen, and nobody was a better political listener than Philip.
His earliest memory was of padding round his garden planning election campaigns – aged six.
When he was 10, he asked his parents if they could forgo the family holiday so that he could watch the coverage of the US conventions. But despite being a political obsessive himself, he never lost sight of the views and values of those who were not.
Though best known for his focus groups, he involved himself in all aspects of election planning. He was also a brilliant analyser of speech drafts, always offering frank advice which forced Tony Blair and the speechwriting team to raise our game, like this entry in my diary for 27 September 1999: “Philip captured the lowest point around 2am Tuesday when he did a note which began ‘this speech has seriously lost the plot. The main argument is nowhere. What has happened?’”
Like most meaningful activities, campaigns are team games. Philip was the ultimate team player and team builder; keeping spirits up; staying calm when others were falling out or falling apart; never losing sight of the big goals. Perhaps alone of the key New Labour figures, he made few, if any, enemies. He was a healer. Even in these past few weeks, he has been trying to heal some of the rifts and scars of the New Labour years.
And when he entered what he called “the death zone”, in one of his last strategic acts, he turned his death into a campaign, the goals of which were to make his departure easier for his wife, Gail, and their daughters, Georgia and Grace; to help others by writing and talking about facing up to death – he was dictating for a book on this almost to the very end; and to update his political memoir, The Unfinished Revolution, with a powerful political message to Labour’s next generation, to learn the right lessons from both victory and defeat. On a personal note, I never had a truer friend, nor more wonderful conversations than those we have had in recent months.
But inspiring though he has been in facing up to cancer, and humbling though it was to hold his hand on Sunday as, alive but unconscious, he moved towards death to the sound of his beloved Gregorian chants, it is not Philip Gould on his death bed that I will remember in years to come.
It is Philip Gould the friend who brought such love and support to my family, Philip Gould the positive life force who brought hope and energy to all he did, Philip Gould the strategist who tirelessly served every Labour leader from Neil Kinnock to Ed Miliband, and Philip Gould the man whose final words in his final interview were “have faith and try to change the world” … because that is what he did.