Rowenna Davis selected as Labour candidate for Southampton Itchen

The New Statesman contributor is chosen to contest the marginal seat currently held by John Denham.

Congratulations to New Statesman writer Rowenna Davis, who has just been selected as Labour's PPC for Southampton Itchen.

I've known Rowenna since 2011 and have long admired her campaigning on issues such as the living wage, affordable housing and payday loans. Current MP John Denham, who is standing down in 2015, held the seat by just 192 votes in 2010 (making it the 13th most marginal in the Commons) but with a candidate as strong as Rowenna it's one the party can be confident of retaining.

She said after her selection:

It's an honour to succeed John Denham as Labour's candidate for Southampton Itchen.

Too many people have told me they feel anxious about the future as a result of a heartless and incompetent government that continues to give a raw deal to this city, threatening Southampton's proud record as a place of hope and opportunity. We urgently need to make Southampton a living wage city, attract new investment and employment, build more affordable housing and support our schools to become the leading lights of the south.

I'm looking forward to working on these issues with all residents whether they voted Labour, Conservative, UKIP or have never voted at all, to change Southampton together.

As well as serving as a councillor in Peckham, Rowenna has been a regular contributor to the NS since 2010. She's also the author of Tangled Up In Blue, an excellent account of the birth of Blue Labour, which I reviewed back in 2011.

To get a flavour of Rowenna's social commentary and investigative journalism, here are a few good places to start.

No "spirit of 45" for the workers at the liberal intelligentsia's favourite cinemas (April 2013)

How food banks became mainstream: the new reality of the working poor (December 2012)

The left's opposition to badger culls ignores the plight of our farmers (October 2012)

Spread of betting shops shows the coalition's failure on growth (June 2012)

The silent crisis engulfing our pubs (March 2012)

Payday loans: "Don’t worry, love, they don’t need your backstory!" (December 2011)

Shadows over the rural idyll (December 2010)

Labour also held its selection in Hampstead and Kilburn today, where Camden councillor Tulip Siddiq was chosen to replace the retiring Glenda Jackson. That seat is even more marginal than Southampton Itchen, with Labour holding on by just 42 votes in 2010.

Judging by tweets from those at the selection, it appears to have been an acrimonious occasion. Camden New Journal reporter Richard Osley wrote: "All a bit heated outside the Labour selection meeting for Hampstead and Kilburn. One man reportedly headbutted in clash outside", and the police and ambulance services were subsequently called.

Rowenna Davis, who was elected to Southwark Council as a councillor in Peckham in May 2011.

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.