11 years after his death, the campaigning principles honed by New Labour’s strategist are as a relevant as ever. Both inside, and outside, of politics.
Remembering Philip Gould, here are his 10 campaigning principles (plus one from me).
“There are few, if any, fixed rules of campaigning. My approach is dynamic and based on the need for constant change, continuous reassessment, and the resolution of contradictions, while always seeking to connect ideas to experience… But the following principles run through it.”
Alex Ferguson was a big influence on New Labour. His management philosophy could be summarised as “making sure every single detail pointed towards the top of the mountain (building a winning football club). Gould’s first principle is exactly this, “holistic”.
“[campaigns] have to be rooted in substance, in ideas, in values, in principles: these in turn have to connect to organisation and structure, which in turn must connect to message and to delivery of the message, to every detail of every leaflet, to every performance on television.”
“There is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war.” – Lt Col Schley. Gould’s “dynamic” principle reminded him never to drive with eyes stuck in the rear-view mirror.
“Never assume that the prevailing situation will continue. Understand that what has worked before may not work again, what was successful in the last election may be stale or ineffective in the next. The soapbox was effective for Major in 1992, laughable five years later.”
Perhaps an area of campaigning that business has a lead on. Capitalism is founded on the holy trinity of growth, growth, and more growth. But Gould’s principle of “momentum” drove Labour to stab the knife in further in the final days of the 1997 election.
“You have momentum, or you are losing momentum, there is no middle way. Politics does not accept a condition of stasis, in which both parties are in equal and continuing balance. In a campaign you must always seek to gain and keep momentum, or it will pass immediately to your opponent.”
The core principle for Gould, the “message”. Inherent in this, is the need for a case to be made which is rooted in truth and substance. Is there a better example in the commercial world than Fever Tree? ‘If ¾ of your drink is the mixer, mix with the best.’
“People think message just means a few words, often repeated, but message is much more: it is the rationale that underpins your campaign. It is your central argument, the reasons you believe that the electorate should vote for you and not your opponents.”
Gould wrote these principles down in 1998. One was “speed”. He referenced a ferocious news cycle, of hourly TV updates, and multiple newspapers read every day. 24 years later, campaigners would kill for such peace and tranquillity.
“The world is littered with assertions that are untrue but are believed to be true because they were not effectively answered. An unrebutted lie becomes accepted as the truth. You must always rebut an attack if leaving it unanswered will harm you. And you must do it instantly.”
Gould’s principle of “endurance” is about the physical and mental strain on campaigners. But there should be another interpretation too, the importance of resisting boredom. As Alastair Campbell said, “Just at the point when you are sick to death of your message, the public are just starting to notice it.”
“The capacity for endurance – not just to keep going, but to make good, sensible, fast decisions when almost dropping with exhaustion – is an essential quality in campaigning.”
Alongside, lawyers and second-hand car salesmen, we tend to be one of the only professions that can give politicians a run for their money on “untrustworthiness.” Gould’s principle of “Trust” is dependent, as many of his principles are, on substance and truth.
“Trust is the vital ingredient of modern politics, and it is also the most elusive: hard to win, almost impossible to get back once lost. This means moving from rhetoric to action. Not just saying things but doing them.”
Gould’s principle of “beating fear” is as relevant to marketers as it is to politicians. People parting ways with pounds during a cost-of-living crisis will be stewarded by fear.
“Almost always the electorate hovers between hope and fear. Fear is a more compelling emotion, more easily provoked. But in an increasingly fast-changing world, insecurity is likely to grow, and with it the potential for fear-based campaigning.”
“Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” Well, nothing kills a good campaign faster than a bad product. The principle of Gould’s principles was “substance”, campaigns had to be rooted in reality. The public are experts at knowing when they are not.
“You will not win, at least not comprehensively, if your campaign is not based on substance. Even brilliant presentation cannot sell a dud product. Labour lost in 1987 despite a brilliant campaign, and in 1992 with a creditable campaign, because it had not changed enough.”
Philip Gould did the focus groups for New Labour and did not just see them as a useful tool for campaigners, but as a crucial element of democracy. His final principle is that campaigning was “a dialogue with the people.” Campaigns that failed to talk to, listen to, and understand their audience were doomed to fail.
“The most important thing a party must do in a campaign is listen to what the voters are saying. This does not mean doing what they say, it means knowing what they are thinking and feeling, and respecting it. Focus groups and market research are an essential part of this dialogue.”
Reading Philip Gould’s strategy memos and his books, you soon realise that there in a fundamental principle missing from his list. Gould, and his colleagues, were ingrained into their campaigns. Strategies are the signatures of their creators.
“I find them inseparable, Philip the colleague and Philip the friend. Some of the most political moments in our relationship came when we were on holiday. Some of the greatest acts of friendship, and the smallest touches of kindness, came as we were struggling to hold a campaign together.” – Alastair Campbell