Politics Must Not Be Blind to the Facts of Life ; Philip Gould, Architect of Labour's Revival, Understood That Political Dogma Should Always Be Tempered by Empiricism [Edition 2]
Matthew d'Ancona, The Evening Standard (London, England)
[broken bar] INDING myself near St Paul's yesterday, I went into the cathedral to light a candle for Philip Gould. Though I didn't know the Labour strategist well, I invariably enjoyed his company, admired his fearless intellect, and was honoured when he asked me to write a word or two to use on the cover of the updated edition of his great political manual, The Unfinished Revolution. Out on the steps, I looked at the encampment with its placards ("Financial terrorists!", "Capitalism is a war crime!") and wondered what he would have had to say about it all.
Yesterday's obituaries rightly focused on Gould's central role in the revival of Labour and three successive general election victories for Tony Blair. But his contribution was not limited to the party that he loved. The early Conservative modernisers recognised that The Unfinished Revolution was more than a historical guide to Labour's escape from Opposition in 1997: the book enshrined a fundamental but easily forgotten truth, that politics without empiricism is no better than politics without values. Gould loved Hegel's idealism and Oakeshott's scepticism, and paid homage to both. He recognised (a radical argument when he first made it) that a Left-of-Centre party had to take account of the voters' real and deepest attitudes or it was doomed.
Hence his love of focus groups. The principal objection to these research instruments has always been that they are a sign of failed leadership: they supposedly betoken "followership", a readiness merely to parrot back to the voters what they have already said. Bill Clinton once observed that "there is no one more powerful today than the member of the focus group. If you really want to change things and you want to get listened to, that's the place to be."
But Gould never wanted to install a dictatorship of the focus group. Instead, he regarded deep drilling into public opinion, using "qualitative research", as a way of keeping power on its toes, of whispering into the Emperor's ear. The earliest Conservative modernisers -- Daniel Finkelstein, Rick Nye and Andrew Cooper -- understood that the Tories faced a similar reckoning, however unpalatable, in which they must confront just how distrusted and remote from contemporary society the voters felt they had become. Once the party recognised all this (up to a point, anyway) it elected David Cameron. In this sense, Gould helped to transform not one but two parties.
In his updated book, he recalls that, as he recovered from his first cancer surgery in 2008, he grasped that "we stand in the glare of change, sometimes blinded by it, but always aware that it is there ... the world had become so fastmoving, so complex, so fragmented that events would emerge that would be hard to predict, destructive in their impact and sometimes irreversible in their consequences".
That was spot-on. The Thatcher era, in which strong leadership had faced down inflation, union militancy and international communism, transformed the contours of British society with the dramatic spread of home and share ownership. …