'He taught us how to die': Tributes pour in for Philip Gould

Some credit Philip Gould with changing the face of British politics.
Some credit Philip Gould with changing the face of British politics.

By Ian Dunt

One of the architects of modern British politics has passed away, prompting an outpouring of tributes from influential figures, particularly in Labour.

Philip Gould played a key role in securing power for the party in 1997 with a heavy reliance on focus groups and an obsessive attention to opinion polls.

"He taught those fortunate enough to know him much about how to live, and in the years of his illness, much about how to die," Ed Miliband wrote.


"He was Labour to his core, and today, as the Labour party, we mourn for one of our own."

Alastair Campbell wrote in his blog: "His focus groups, far from being an exercise in PR, were a way of making sure that the kind of people he felt Labour forgot in the wilderness years had a direct voice to the top of politics.

"He was not a speechwriter but he was the most brilliant analyst of speech drafts. His notes on them always improved the final product.

"He always needed a campaign, and the illness became the campaign. We called the cancer Adolf, perhaps the ultimate enemy. Yes, I said, this means you are Churchill. He liked that."

The former advertising executive died on Sunday at the Royal Marsden hospital after a long battle with cancer.

His honest account of his battle with the illness provided surprisingly personal and heartfelt interviews, including one with the Guardian in which he urged people to accept death.

"You know, this period of death is astonishing," he told the newspaper.

"The moment you enter the death phase it is a different place. It's more intense, more extraordinary, much more powerful.

"From the moment I resolved and reconciled things with Gail [his wife] the fear went. I don't feel I've got any fear now.

"I think acceptance is the key. If you accept death, fear disappears." 

Lord Gould was appointed as director of communications for Labour by Peter Mandelson, going on to formulate strategy for five general elections. He was closely associated with the 'modernisation' phase of the Labour project and is widely credited in the party with making it electable again.

Others claim he cheapened politics by introducing an over-reliance on the focus group, and exchanging political principles for strategic calculation.

"To me he was my guide and mentor, a wise head, a brilliant mind and a total rock when a storm was raging," Tony Blair said.

"But then as his illness gripped him, he became something more. In facing death, he grew emotionally and spiritually into this remarkable witness to life's meaning and purpose."

David Miliband wrote: "Philip has been described – and maligned – as a pollster, because in the 1980s he brought a dose of focus group reality to Labour’s other-worldly musings about the state and future of the country. But he was much than that.

"He was a sociologist and strategist, always trying to think through the world’s trends, and chart a political course through them. He was onto disillusion with politics before anyone else; he was fascinated by how power was shifting."

The 61-year-old was with his wife Gail, and daughters, Georgia and Grace, when he died.

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