One of the most memorable and moving bits of tv this year was Andrew Marr interviewing New Labour architect Philip Gould at a time when peer and pollster clearly knew the end was in sight. The brave and lucid interviewee has now died at 61 of cancer as the BBC reports here and Guardian here. I can’t claim to have ever met the man but his refocusing of Labour strategy in the 90s was key to the party taking power and leading its most successful period ever – three consecutive election victories with thumping majorities. Key to that was his recognition of the suburbs as the key battleground of elections and the broadening out from focusing on traditional heartlands.
Gould (1998) wrote of his frustration during the Thatcher-major period that Labour had not understood the aspiration of suburbia in crafting their appeals to the electorate, something that he was aware of from his childhood in Kent. He has explained: “my party was to betray… ordinary people with suburban dreams who worked hard to improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth. These people wanted sensible, moderate policies which conformed to their daily lives and understanding. Labour had failed to understand that the old working class was becoming a new middle class: aspiring, consuming, choosing what was best for themselves and their families. They had outgrown crude collectivism and left it behind in the supermarket car park.” This project to make Labour acceptable to suburb-dwellers, more often collapsed into the catch-all category of “middle England” was at the heart of the New Labour project. Gould had learned from polling techniques used on the 1992 Clinton campaign: the strategy adopted was the incessant running of focus groups with swing voters in the suburbs.
Whatever you think of what happened next, there was a genuine tide of optimism surrounding early Blair MkI and as for an electoral strategy it worked. Sad news indeed today of a great loss, particularly for his wife and two daughters who survive him.