The UK commentariat loves a good old witch hunt. Just look at yesterday’s Twitter activity when Philip Gould’s passing became public knowledge. The deep divisions of opinion are marked; yet both left and right became united in their open hate, with calls for Gould to be forgotten coming as quick and fast as the tributes. Gould has been publicly and openly vilified as a dangerous man who espoused a dangerous politics, a master of the dark political arts, as much in league with You-Know-Who as Campbell and Mandy. His death has sparked as much vitriolic tribalism as tweets about the X Factor.
This is, without doubt, a clear demonstration of the impact that Gould had upon not only New Labour, but a new form of politics, dictated by the focus groups, brand identity and the necessity of staying ‘on message’. That the ‘Clintonisation’ of Labour came to fruition under his influence has been well documented in obituaries. Gould was an uber-moderniser, a strategist for whom no thought was unthinkable, too dangerous or radical. He was a man of bold statements, of counter-intuitive thought and, at times, a foil to reason. Blair has spoken of his obsessive character; in a late interview, Gould spoke about the chaotic energy rife within what would become the New Labour centrepiece. This energy would in many ways redefine modern politics.
But Old Labour had, and still has, little time for Blair’s cohort of unelected advisers – the "beautiful people". The modernisers, with their talk of polls, public relations and infamous focus groups, became synonymous with a suspiciously yuppie, Islington-living, latte-sipping culture developing at the heart of the party. Away with pie and mash, whippets and Corrie; the unionised activist homeland was slowly and surely being erased by a new vision of campaigning, policy development and government, where new-fangled blue sky thinking reigned supreme.
In my opinion, this couldn’t have come at a better time. Policy making has been supremely bettered as a result of focus group politics. Claims that this information was used solely for the furthering of election strategy seem to me to be at best anecdotal and conjectural; those who suggest oligarchic tendencies, that Gould’s influence was ‘profoundly unwelcome for those wishing to live in a rigorous, robust democracy’, couldn’t have missed the point more.
Gould’s was a brave and rare talent. The importance of his fusing politics and strategic communications along with insight into what Britain really thinks, cannot be overstated. But with energy and fervour comes divisive, if not dangerous, thought, as the reaction to his death proves acutely. Towards the end of his life, Gould would speak of having entered ‘the death zone’, a point of no return. It was also at this point, when his cancer was diagnosed as terminal, that it was now non-negotiable, that Gould’s politics of purpose in what he saw absolutely as a disordered world really comes to the fore.
In this critical sense, it is perhaps useful and important to draw a comparison between Gould and Steve Hilton, Cameron’s own maverick, dangerous thinker. The numerous occasions where leaks from CCHQ or Number 10 brainstorms have led to headlines denouncing Hilton as some kind of neo-con nutter – keen to abolish maternity rights, if not steal your children altogether and stick them down a mine in order to solve the economic crisis. Hilton has even been at the receiving end of his own ironic hashtag, #blueskyhilton, thanks to his seemingly dangerous, not at all on-message suggestions during Cameron’s open-collar-rolled-up-sleeves break out sessions.
This, for Gould as for Hilton, is thinking in the death zone; dangerous thought which could backfire; the elephant in the room that is loaded with explosives. Yet the need for people like Gould and Hilton is absolute. Gould outlined the need in politics to ‘have faith, try and change the world’; those close to Hilton have suggested that he is likely to be furious if, at the end of five years in Government, the Tories have not completely transformed the country and freed people up to run their own lives. Both Gould and Hilton are political mavericks; and they will be hated by many for many more years to come.
But the need for radical, death zone thinking has never been so apparent. Growth is sluggish at best; mass unemployment must be tackled as a priority; and inequality threatens to create a new political underclass.
So here’s to dangerous thought. Long live divisive political thinking that really attempts to get to grips with the critical issues of the day. And long live Philip Gould: chaotic, brave and positively modern.
This blog first appeared in The Huffington Post