OPINION15 November 2011

What I learned from Philip Gould

News Opinion

Deborah Mattinson shares lessons from the life and career of New Labour strategist Philip Gould, a pollster who aimed high and whose work made a difference.


Philip Gould, Labour’s polling strategist, died from cancer last week, aged just 61. His death, rightly, has prompted the warmest of tributes from people across the political divide. He was much admired, much loved.

I first met Philip in the mid 1980s. He burst into a meeting of Labour éminences grises, shirt hanging out, papers flying everywhere and proceeded to talk nineteen to the dozen. He exuded energy, enthusiasm and intelligence. He recently described himself as “a bit of a nutcase” about politics. I guess he exuded some of that too.

He and I went on to set up business together working out of scruffy offices in Soho. New Labour was ten years away from conception. Those heady early days have been in my thoughts this week. We achieved a great deal, laughed a lot, and I learned much from working with him.

Here are just a few of those lessons.

1. Keep a clear focus – and be accountable

At first glance, this seems easier in politics than it is in business. After all, politics is simply about winning the election. Yet the Labour Party had too often fudged both its objectives and its communications. It had lost its sense of self, and lost trust with voters.

One of Philip’s early triumphs was to help Labour focus energy on the things that really mattered – and to maintain that focus.

Back then we talked a lot about ‘symbolic’ policies – the things you can do that clearly symbolise what your values are. A perfect example of this was the Conservatives’ hugely successful council house sales policy.

From the 1990 Policy Review onwards we worked hard to identify which policies best symbolised Labour then and for the future. The resulting Pledge Card and the five well-tested policies that it promoted showed clearly what the party stood for and its willingness to be held to account.

“Philip believed that Labour should represent the ordinary suburbia that he came from. Why should a Hampstead journalist have more clout than an ordinary mum in Slough or Harlow?”

2. Put yourself in the shoes of the stakeholders who matter most

Like it or not, UK elections are decided by a smallish group of swing voters in marginal seats. And, like it or not, politics is often dominated by those inside the Westminster bubble. There are parallels in the corporate world where senior management can become detached from consumers.

Philip passionately believed that Labour should represent the ordinary suburbia that he came from. Why, he asked, should a Hampstead journalist have more clout than an ordinary mum in Slough or Harlow?

Determined to give voice to those mums, we used extensive quantitative research to identify exactly who they were, then maintained constant contact with them through weekly focus groups. The dialogue that developed became an intrinsic element of campaign and policy development. Their views, which had once been ignored, now mattered.

3. Know how your opposition is seen – and how that affects you

UK political campaigns are highly polarised. It’s you or them. Success depends on knowing your enemy. It also depends on understanding that voters do not hear your message in a vacuum: their response to what you say is coloured by what others are telling them.

This is also true in the corporate world: testing your message in isolation from the counter view of your competitors can be misleading. We often found that the ‘winning’ message when tested on its own lost out when tested against the competition.

We applied lessons gleaned from Philip’s time in the US, developing a method of simulating the campaign in our message testing with much more reliable outcomes.

4. It’s all about relationships

Philip was a great networker and navigated tricky politics with ease. What Philip knew – and, I believe, the wider research industry sometimes forgets – is that building relationships is at least as important as producing insight.

Knowing that if his work was kept in a ‘polling’ silo it would be diminished, he built trusted relationships up and down the organisation, encouraging people to work together. The whole was always greater than the sum of the parts.

“Many of the moving tributes to Philip have gone to pains to define him as a ‘strategist’ rather than ‘just a pollster’. This reflects his powerful ambition”

5. Be ambitious and never give up

Over the past week, many of the moving tributes to Philip have been at pains to define him as a ‘strategist’ rather than ‘just a pollster’.

This reflects his powerful ambition. It also reflects our industry’s lack of it. For research to move centre stage it must be influential – listened to and acted on at the most senior level.

This is the most important lesson of all: aim high, and ask yourself, will my work make a difference? Philip’s certainly did.

Finally, if you do aim high you will meet resistance. Breaking new ground won’t please everyone. In the early days Philip’s work was derided by many. He kept going. After 1992 he was scapegoated for election defeat and, again, kept going.

He describes the second volume of his seminal work An Unfinished Revolution as a “letter to the next generation”. Never give up, he urges: “There is never a time when the revolution is finished, never a time to stop thinking, to stop renewing, to stop trying to change the world if only by a little.”

That will be his legacy.

Deborah Mattinson is co-founder of BritainThinks