Why Miliband and Blair can now share a platform

As Blair has moderated his stance on the deficit, Miliband has opened his door.

Those understandably alarmed by the announcement that Tony Blair will return as an "adviser" to Labour will presumably be relieved to learn that his remit is limited to how Britain can maximise its "Olympic legacy". As Labour List's Mark Ferguson writes, "If the party is going to fall out over what Tony Blair thinks we should do with a velodrome, we’re in real trouble…". 

Yet the political symbolism of Ed Miliband's decision to share a platform with the former prime minister at last night's Labour fundraising dinner should not be underestimated. In the early months of Miliband's leadership, when he distanced the party from Blair's stances on Iraq, the economy, tuition fees and civil liberties, the two would never have appeared in such close proximity. Blair's memoir, A Journey, in which he echoed the coalition's stance on deficit reduction, was seen as confirmation of his toxic status.

But Blair has since privately indicated that he agrees with Ed Balls's critique of the government's austerity programme as self-defeating. In his view, the coalition is going "too far, too fast". As a result, Miliband is far more comfortable about appearing in public with Blair. Having already put clear red water between himself and the former prime minister, he is confident that Blair's return will not be seen as evidence of a shift to the right. 

Where Blair and Miliband continue to differ is on the future of capitalism. While Miliband believes the neoliberal model has fundamentally failed, Blair believes it can be revived. As the latter recently told the Evening Standard, "I understand that some people think the financial crisis has altered everything. And the mood is against this. Personally I don't think that's correct." But Blair is not alone in such thinking. While Miliband and Balls are at one on the need to limit austerity, the shadow chancellor is more sceptical of his leader's call for a new economic model.

Beyond this, one other thing is clear: Blair, like the rest of Westminster, has been forced to recognise Miliband as a potential future prime minister. As he said last night:

There is a rulebook in politics that goes something like this: Labour governs. Labour loses. Tories take over. Labour goes crazy. Tories carry on governing.

Time to re-write that script.

Actually it is being re-written by them and by us. They’re on their way down. We’re on our way up.

That Blair can now state with conviction that Labour, not the Tories, will win the next election is evidence of the transformation in Miliband's political fortunes.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a service to mark the Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.