Miliband needs to go much further to restore confidence

The Labour leader must use this moment to emancipate himself from the machine that won him the job in the first place.

Ed Miliband is at a fork in the road. Plainly he cannot go back, by which I mean he cannot pretend that there is nothing of great significance to see in the row over the Falkirk selection – that it was a rogue case; single bad apple etc.

Len McCluskey’s attack on the Labour leadership – accusing the party of smearing Unite and betraying its trust – bars that route. Besides, every Labour activist, member, MP and any journalist who has spoken much to any of those people knows there is a systemic problem with the opaque way the apparatus has traditionally operated. They also know there has been a concerted effort by Unite to manipulate that process to increase its control over Labour. So when McCluskey implies the party leadership is involved in some nasty plot to be beastly to the union and that Unite, in other words, are the victims of a conspiracy, he is directly challenging Miliband’s authority. He is saying, in effect: "You are not the master of this situation and have no control over how it will end; so let me make this easy – back down, and it ends." Except, of course, it won’t.

So the choice for Miliband is between prolonged managed crisis and full-blown confrontation. It is between hoping that this can be made to go away with some judicious, calculated moves (Miliband’s standard modus operandi) or using the situation to open a whole new chapter in his leadership.

Miliband might think that Tom Watson’s resignation, freezing the Falkirk selection process and ending the system that allows unions to buy up bundles of party membership will signal determination to get a grip. He may believe that the necessary resolve is indicated with some firm words, whether from his own mouth or through a spokesman or shadow cabinet ally, saying dodgy selections will not be tolerated. If so, he is wrong.

Judging by my conversations with some Labour MPs in the past 24 hours, I’d say Miliband has to go much, much further to restore confidence. This isn’t about whether he supports the union link or whether he should be acquiescing to Tory attacks on the left. Nor is it about mechanisms to ensure more "working class" candidates are selected. (Of course, in that argument, class is usually a category of ideology, not background or income. The people defending Unite on those terms aren’t hankering after the next generation of working class Alan Johnsons, Alan Milburns or Hazel Blears.)

What this is really about is Ed Miliband’s capacity to be a leader at all – to emancipate himself from the machine that won him the job in the first place and that has helped consolidate his position, but at a heavy price. A superficial unity was achieved but there was no intellectual or ideological harmony, no reconciliation between factions, no meaningful synthesis of ideas and, as a result, no clarity of direction. As I wrote in this week’s magazine, Miliband is desperate to be a candidate who talks about the future, but the Labour Party is still tangled up in a way of doing politics that reeks of a joyless, airless, stale past.

Worse, it looks to many people inside the party and beyond as if Miliband has been shrinking, not growing into the job. The cavalier and patronising tone of Watson’s resignation letter has not gone unnoticed. Between the lines, Labour MPs are reading a message of casual disregard: sorry mate, all got a bit tricky, can’t be bothered anymore, good luck with that whole 'leadership' thing, see ya around.

There is a feeling around the parliamentary Labour party today that Watson and McCluskey are threatening to take their ball home if the game can’t be played by their rules. And there is concern that Miliband is looking like the weedy kid in the playground who will be left standing alone, unpicked to play on any team. As one shadow minister, a despairing Ed supporter, put it to me last night: "It’s time to stand up to the bullies now and say clearly, 'f--- off'".

Raising the tone a bit, I’d say this is starting to feel like Ed’s Prince Hal moment. There is the famous scene at the end of Henry IV Part II when the young Prince comes away from his coronation and is accosted by Falstaff – the ribald villain whose company he kept through the years of misspent youth. Falstaff has been waiting for this moment, thinking he will be in with the new King and enjoy grotesque and fabulous privileges. But Hal surprises everyone by cutting his old crony down. "I know thee not old man," he says.

Well, Ed Miliband needs that kind of moment. He needs something that will signal the beginning of a new phase in his leadership; that he has the confidence and the vision to govern in a better, more open, more imaginative way. At the moment it looks as if it is Falstaff who is getting the last word, saying to the new King: "Thanks for the ride but, frankly, I’ve got better things to do." And if Henry IV Pt II had ended like that, there would never have been a King Henry V.

"It looks to many people inside the party and beyond as if Miliband has been shrinking, nor growing into the job." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.