Will Watson's departure prevent a new round of Labour bloodletting?

The chatter in the party has been that Watson runs around the country making sure 'his' people get chosen as candidates.

The resignation of Tom Watson from the shadow cabinet substantially changes the complexion of the row over internal Labour party processes and selection battles. Ostensibly, the arguments and allegations in recent weeks had been about the influence of Unite - specifically its explicit strategy of placing hand-picked candidates in line for winnable parliamentary seats. This all came to light because of an egregiously clumsy attempt to stitch-up the selection in Falkirk.
As details of that episode have been pored over and the Labour leadership has tried to get a grip, a recurring theme in discussions has been the friendship between Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and Watson (now ex) Labour party deputy chair and head of campaigns. It was hardly a secret or a surprise that trade unions had a profound role influencing constituency selections. Frankly, without union money it is quite hard to fight any kind of Labour campaign - internal or external. But something a number of MPs and shadow ministers have been complaining about in private is the very specific role that Watson has had in anointing potential parliamentary candidates. 
The chatter around the party - more specifically, but by no means exclusively the angst-ridden and disillusioned Blairish side of the party - has been that Watson runs around the country making sure 'his' people get chosen and consolidating an already formidable control over the part machine. This, as I noted in my column this week, is pretty much the same machine that agitated internally for Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair in Downing Street and that helped enforce Brown's will once the coup had succeeded. By reputation - no doubt somewhat exaggerated -  it is an apparatus of whispers, smears, briefings and 'punishment beatings'. 
When Ed Miliband became leader he had a relatively small following in the parliamentary party and certainly nothing that could be called a machine. So he inherited the old Brown-era one. Miliband has stayed studiously aloof from the grindings and whirrings of internal party machination, but the grumbling about the old techniques being back in play was getting hard to ignore. I was told recently that representations had been made to the leader's office by MPs and shadow ministers to the effect that the culture of 'dark arts' was running out of control and that it was in danger of making Ed, with his preference for idealistic, moralising language, look like a hypocrite.
I suspect noises of this kind were getting louder as a result of the publicity around the Falkirk case. A potentially unkind spotlight was perhaps about to fall on the way Watson is alleged to have been carrying out his duties. His resignation pre-empts what could have been - and of course still could be - a round of old-fashioned red-on-red bloodletting.
Tom Watson speaks during the launch of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on phone-hacking on 1 May 2012. 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.