The Reckoning of a Hollow Man

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posted | in Honours

A ‘Hollow Man’ died in London last year. Philip Gould, the Labour Party pollster and key architect of Tony Blair’s New Labour, was told in September 2011 that he would die of cancer within three months. With morbid accuracy, he died in the first week of November.

It is a strange burden to be forced to examine one’s mortality this way. The inevitability of the outcome removes the incentive for self-delusion; the half-true self-justifications that we cling to in order to live with ourselves. In response to his prognosis, Philip Gould took stock. As an inveterate political communicator, he did so publicly. He told the Guardian:

The moment you enter the death phase it is a different place. It’s more intense, more extraordinary, much more powerful… When I thought maybe I’ve just got a few weeks, I thought ‘God this is what they mean by the reckoning. I’ve got to sort all this stuff out in days. Is it possible to sort out all those things in your past that you’d prefer not to have done’

It is fashionable to view political professionals as soulless beings engaged in inherently immoral work. Those on the left are generally assumed to be cravenly sublimating what political beliefs they do hold in a never ending pursuit of government. Working Dog Productions perfectly synthesised this attitude when it named its satire of modern Australian politics, The Hollow Men after T.S. Eliot’s despairing lament for the lost souls of Europe’s interwar years.

Gould was a particular target for this kind of moral disapproval. His purported sin was of leading the entire Labour Party into a collective act of apostasy against progressive ideology. As the man who pioneered the regular use of polling and focus groups by the Labour Party, for many in the UK progressive movement he was considered the patient zero of The Hollow Men disease. So, in the face of inescapable death, what was the product of Gould’s reckoning?

Gould did not repent and seek forgiveness of those who long accused him of selling out the Party and its ideology. Gould was not a death bed convert to the righteousness of the causes of the hard left ideologues who he fought in the name of Labour ‘modernisation’ throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, Gould spent last months and weeks of his life revising and expanding his New Labour history and campaigning manifesto, The Unfinished Revolution. In doing so, he produced what is probably the greatest modern articulation of the philosophical case for the pursuit of the progressive cause through the democratic process.

The Unfinished Revolution begins with a Labour Party that had turned in on itself and away from the country that it was seeking to govern. The UK was changing. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the ‘working class’ upon whose votes the Labour Governments of Attlee and Wilson were founded was shrinking in absolute terms and in its place an expanded middle class was emerging. This new middle class was not hostile to the goals of the progressive cause. Indeed, their basic ambition of seeking a better life for themselves and their children than that experienced by their parents is at the core of the progressive vision. The new middle class was, however, less ideological than the working class it was superceding and had aspirations that were greater than the more immediate, traditional Labour policy objectives. It was for this emerging demographic that the term ‘aspirational class’ was first used. Gould was born of this aspirational class and grew up watching the Labour Party first abandon it, and then become actively hostile to its hopes and interests.

The nadir of Gould’s career came in the wake of Labour’s infamous 1983 election loss under Michael Foot. Labour had gone into the election with a 700-page manifesto promising unilateral nuclear disarmament, immediate withdrawal from the European Common Market, the nationalisation of the 25 largest companies in the UK and across the board increases in taxation – in some instances pushing marginal rates to 93 percent. Critics derided it as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ and as a result, Labour’s vote fell by almost 10 percent to 27.6 percent.

Gould believed that Labor’s ideological selfobsession and electoral self-banishment were a betrayal of the very people the party was setting out to protect. This was the context for Gould’s championing of focus groups. He wanted Labour to listen to the people and hear how they, and the UK more generally, had changed since the 1950s. For him, political wisdom was not to be found in the dogma of ideology, but in the minds of the people. Vox populi, vox dei; the voice of the people is the voice of God. Focus groups were the equivalent of opening the windows of a shut-in Labour Party and letting the sun shine in on the atrophied strategic thinking of those cloistered inside.

Gould’s ultimate goal was to give Labour the tools it needed to become an outward looking vehicle for achieving democratic progressive change. History shows that he succeeded beyond his wildest political fantasies. Between 1983 and 1997, when the Blair Government was triumphantly elected, Labour increased its net Parliamentary representation by 323 seats, turning a 144 seat loss into a 179 seat majority. The vast bulk of this increase in support came from the middle classes that it had been Gould’s mission to re-engage and that sustained more than a decade of Labour Governments.

The importance of building the foundations for long-term government was Gould’s second great passion and the source of the title of his book. Gould understood that achieving lasting change in a modern democracy requires time to build support not just in the progressive movement, but also in the broader community. Gould saw Labour’s task as not just winning elections, but ‘winning centuries’.

Between 1997 and 2008, New Labour changed the terms of the political debate in the UK. The political centre shifted decisively to the left. On issues like the National Health Service, the minimum wage, anti-poverty programs, climate change policy and gay rights, the Tories were forced to adopt positions that a decade before would have been unimaginable.

The product of Gould’s life reckoning deserves to be widely read in Australia. All too frequently, those on the right wing of the Labor Party, being biased towards practical thought rather than ideological introspection, abandon the debate over the philosophical meaning of the progressive movement to those on our left. This failure to articulate what we stand for is what leaves us open to the ‘Hollow Men’ charge.  rebuts by articulating what we all instinctively understand: that clinging to ideology both blinds us to the realities of policy making in an ever changing world and betrays the political mission of the progressive cause.

While Gould’s death it a tragic loss for the progressive movement the world over, it is satisfying to think that he was able to contemplate the end of his life confident in the contribution he made to the cause and knowing that he has left a rich legacy of political insight for the generations who follow him.