Among the many tributes to Philip Gould, former New Labour pollster, is that from David Miliband, who writes on his blog that he:
brought a dose of focus group reality to Labour’s other-worldly musings about the state and future of the country
Gould, despite his popularity, was divisive within the Labour party: the left resented the reliance placed on opinion polls by its leadership. But he also had an independent strategic mind which was admired by senior colleagues: “He was our own Karl Rove, no one else really came close,” one senior Labour MP told us today.
I interviewed Tony Benn a few years ago, and he stressed that he divided the world into weathervanes and signposts. Better to be the one which did not swing with the prevailing wind, was the message. It was clear that the left-wing veteran had Tony Blair in mind.
Ed Miliband gives the impression that he is less reliant on opinion polls than some of his predecessors. His team define this attitude with the phrase “position taker or position maker“ – which rather echoes the Benn approach. “There is a problem with authenticity if all you are doing is echoing focus groups,” says one aide. “We are in an era of politics where values matter.”
The aide points to the Tory attempts to join Ed Miliband in agreeing that the St Paul’s protesters have caught at least a whiff of the wider public mood. That, they believe, is evidence of Andrew Cooper – a former pollster – at work in Downing St. “The problem is that coming from the Tories it isn’t authentic,” he says.
During Labour conference Miliband appeared to dismiss opinion polls when asked on the Today programme about one in which some people thought he was “weird“.
“Other people make their own judgments…I think I’m a pretty normal guy. It’s in the eye of the beholder,” he responded. “I don’t give a damn about that. The times are too serious, the issues are too grave, for us to say it is not about substance. It is about substance. It is absolutely about substance.”
Dan Hodges of Labour Uncut points out that several months after the election some MPs were “dismayed” that Labour had failed to do substantial polling into the reasons for its defeat.
Hodges also claims that presentations to the Labour leadership are “selective“: for example they sometimes leave out the personal polling on Miliband. His argument is that New Labour was the most successful rebranding of a political party in history: “Ed Miliband is trying to conduct a similar rebranding but without using all the New Labour techniques,” he says.
But that does not mean that Miliband is oblivious to the opinion polls. James Morris, who also doubles up as a speechwriter for the Labour leader, is today’s Philip Gould, providing regular poll research for the leadership. Morris, who works for US pollster Stan Greenberg, is a trusted member of the inner circle. Miliband is also close to Deborah Mattinson, formerly known as “Gordon Brown’s favourite pollster”.
Another ally of Miliband says that the Labour leader likes to “test his judgment” by sometimes speaking out on events without recourse to polls:
“I doubt that he took soundings from a focus group before that column in the Observer,” he argues. “He does have more of a sense of where he wants to take the party and country than people give him credit for.”
Here is a link to the recent Andrew Marr interview in which Gould spoke frankly and movingly about his final days.