Why Clegg is right on Trident

Scrapping nuclear weapons is a vote winner.

As parties scramble to pick up first time voters, they would do well to take note of the views of the younger generation. Polls show that while the majority of the population overall favour scrapping Trident, this sentiment is strongest in the 18 to 24 age group -- at 68 per cent. In fact, polls have indicated strong anti-Trident feeling across the political spectrum.

In terms of voting intentions,according to a ComRes/Independent poll in September 2009, 61 per cent of those planning to vote Labour support scrapping Trident, 63 per cent of those planning to vote Liberal Democrat, and most interestingly perhaps, 48 per cent of potential Conservative supporters, coming in 1 per cent higher than those wanting to keep Trident. Not surprisingly, scrapping Trident can be seen as a vote winner, not a vote loser.

This may be borne out by last night's leaders' debate, where Nick Clegg spoke out strongly against wasting public money on a Cold War nuclear weapons system. Brown and Cameron made their support for Trident very clear. All viewer polls since then show that Nick Clegg was overwhelmingly the most popular candidate.

It may not be specifically because he opposed Trident, but it certainly hasn't damaged his ratings. This is something that Labour in particular needs to be aware of. Some of those in the party leadership may still believe the old myth that Labour's anti-nuclear policies in 1983 led to its electoral defeat. In fact, the Tories polled less than at the previous election, but won out because the newly-founded SDP split the anti-Tory vote.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that much of the rank and file of the Labour party oppose the leadership's pro-nuclear position. Now it appears that many current Labour candidates are openly breaking with the party's backing for Trident replacement.

CND has been conducting a survey of parliamentary candidates' views on Trident replacement. So far, the responses from Labour candidates -- many of them standing for the first time and in winnable seats -- are over 2 to 1 against replacing Trident.

Do candidates normally go against party policy in election surveys? I don't know the answer to that, but if the party leadership can't win their candidates to the policy, doesn't have the support of large numbers of party members, and is out of touch with public opinion, then maybe they really should have a rethink.

The minimum we should expect from all parties is that Trident should be included in the Strategic Defence Review. There can be no sacred cows, particularly not ones dating back to the Cold War.

Kate Hudson is Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

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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.