How Ed can counter the Tories’ attack lines

It wasn’t the “union barons” who elected Ed, it was thousands of ordinary workers.

Tory HQ hoped and prayed for an opportunity to present "Red Ed" as a union shoo-in and, in the event, they've got one. Despite winning fewer votes from MPs/MEPs and party members than David, Ed secured the leadership on the strength of his support among affiliated trade unions and socialist societies.

David won 53 per cent of the MPs' vote to Ed's 47 per cent, and 54 per cent of the members' votes to Ed's 46 per cent. It was in the affiliated section that Ed won a decisive 60 per cent, allowing him to take the leadership by 28,000 votes.

"Labour's new leader is in hock to the unions," was the attack line taken up by the Tories and by Sky News's Adam Boulton and Kay Burley, who spoke of trade unionists as if they were an alien species, rather than a group that no fewer than six million Britons belong to.

The Conservative Party chairman, Baroness Warsi, declared in a statement:

Ed Miliband wasn't the choice of his MPs, wasn't the choice of Labour Party members, but was put into power by union votes. I'm afraid this looks like a great leap backwards for the Labour Party.

So, how should Ed respond when the issue is raised, as it undoubtedly will be, on The Andrew Marr Show tomorrow morning? He could point that all of the candidates, including David Miliband, received union endorsements during the contest, dispelling the myth that the unions flocked to him en masse.

But, to be more convincing, he must mount a principled defence of trade unionism and argue that the diversity of Labour's electoral college is a strength, not a weakness. He should remind the public that the union block vote was abolished years ago and that he won the support of thousands of ordinary workers (nurses, teachers, carers), many of whom fit neatly into David Cameron's "big society".

The right's line of attack would be far more dangerous for Ed if he had the sort of agenda that the public associates with militant trade unionism. But, much to the Tories' dismay, he doesn't. Policies such as the introduction of a national living wage, the replacement of tuition fees with a graduate tax, the inclusion of Trident in the strategic defence review and a permanent 50p tax rate have broad and popular appeal.

The Tories' cynical attempt to smear Labour's new leader as a union sop is likely to backfire when they realise just how many people agree with Ed.

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.