Robert Philpot, director of Progress, nominates Philip Gould as the most influential left-winger thinker 2011/12; if you’d like to submit a nomination for someone on the left who has made a contribution to advancing left-wing ideas or concepts in the past year, please email email@example.com
Philip Gould was one of the central figures in Labour’s slow march from near-extinction in the 1980s to its domination of British politics under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
His death last November, and the publication shortly before of an extensively updated version of his 1998 seminal work on the creation of New Labour, “The Unfinished Revolution”, offered modernisers within Labour’s ranks not simply a reminder of Gould’s strategic genius, but also a glimpse of the party’s road back to power.
Gould’s politics were firmly rooted in his background.
As The Unfinished Revolution recounted, he was brought up around the small town of Woking in Surrey:
“An unexceptional suburban town where most people were neither privileged nor deprived, but nearly everybody was struggling to get by.”
Gould believed that, during the 1980s, Labour had betrayed such people:
“Its natural supporters, ordinary people with suburban dreams… [by becoming]…enslaved by dogma.”
Gould did not dismiss the support that millions of such people gave to the Tories under Margaret Thatcher as the result of either selfishness or an inability to fathom their own best interests. He respected them too much to proffer such a judgement. Instead, he blamed Labour for failing to offer ‘sensible moderate policies which conformed to their understanding and their daily lives’.
Indeed, that simple truth – that when a political party loses an election it, not the voters, might be to blame – stands in stark contrast to the attitude that there should be ‘no compromise with the electorate’, a phrase first coined by the left but a sentiment by no means unique to it.
For the next 25 years, quietly, persuasively but vigorously, Gould fought to prevent the party from once again abandoning what he termed ‘the land that Labour forgot’.
• When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone 20 Apr 2012
• Philip Gould: 1950–2011 7 Nov 2011
After its victory in 1997, Gould sought constantly to remind Labour it needed to hear and understand the views of those who may not traditionally have voted for it, but who had lent the party their support.
Unlike some, he did not adopt the attitude Labour’s landslide left it defending voters, interests and constituencies it had no business concerning itself with. Instead, he saw the opportunity for Labour to become the ‘natural party of government’ – an epithet to which the Conservatives had laid claim throughout much of the 20th century.
In short, he envisaged a party that was broad and inclusive rather than narrow and tribal.
And, unlike others, Gould did not believe Tony Blair’s election as leader in 1994 represented some form of ‘Year Zero’. Rather, he tried to place New Labour within the party’s revisionist tradition, linking it to Tony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell.
But, for Gould, respect for the party’s history and a commitment to its unchanging values didn’t negate the centrality of modernisation.
Last autumn, The Times’s Daniel Finkelstein recalled how, when The Unfinished Revolution was first published, Tory leader William Hague, for whom he was then working, sent a copy to every member of the shadow cabinet. In each, Hague inscribed the words ‘know thine enemy’. Finkelstein believes, however, that Tories used the book less ‘to understand our “enemy”, but to understand ourselves’.
The most important lesson of all, argued Finkelstein, was that:
“The key to modernisation is to live in the modern world.”
He went on:
“If this sounds banal, it isn’t. Labour often sounded as if it disliked the consumer economy and resented the changes that has made it possible. They were against their own voters’ television sets and kitchens.
“This, of course, was not a difficulty for Tories, but disliking gays and working women and a diverse society clearly was.”
That reminder – which Gould never stopped trying to impress upon the Labour party – should have made him the most influential left winger of the past year.
I hope it has.