Two diagnoses, one conclusion

The unions and the Liberal Democrats agree on one thing: new Labour is at the end of the road

There is nothing quite like a Morning Star fringe meeting at the Trades Union Congress to remind you of how far British politics has been transformed in the past two decades. In fact, there is nothing quite like a Morning Star fringe meeting, full stop. Where else in 2008 could you hear three union leaders restate their commitment to replacing capitalism with a socialist society? We may be approaching the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but on Tuesday there was one packed room of the Hilton Metropole in Brighton where communism had never died.

Delegates had gathered to hear Derek Simpson of Unite, Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union and Bob Crow of the RMT, who between them represent roughly 2.4 million members of the proletariat. Despite the trade union legislation of the Thatcher years, these men still have the power to crush Gordon Brown's fragile government if they choose to embark on a wave of industrial action over the autumn and winter.

Their analyses of what had gone wrong were identical. The Labour government has alienated the party's core supporters by adopting a neoliberal, pro-business agenda of privatisation, deregulation and low taxation. It is no surprise that it is proving difficult to get the working-class vote out for Labour, they said, when the government has allowed the gap between rich and poor to widen so greatly. In times of growing economic uncertainty, ministers need to demonstrate that the Labour Party is still prepared to look out for those people who stand to lose most from the economic downturn.

A second theory

Scroll forward a week, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, will offer a second theory of why things have gone so badly wrong for Gordon Brown.

He, too, believes that the current decline of the Labour Party in power is a sign that a whole form of government has been discredited. But his diagnosis is very different. Clegg will argue at his party's annual conference in Bournemouth that Brown's version of new Labour is the last throw of the social-democratic dice.

He will say that unprecedented spending on health and education under Brown has not yielded the necessary results, leaving users of schools and hospitals feeling frustrated and disempowered. Instead, what is needed is a more personalised approach to state provision, based on a determination to deliver for patients, parents and pupils. For Clegg, a future government must enable public services to respond to people's needs rather than tell them what is good for them.

There could hardly be two approaches more different from each other. In the fragmented and increasingly sectarian landscape of British politics, the only real point of agreement between the unions and the Liberal Democrat leadership is that new Labour has come to the end of the road. What a contrast with the "progressive consensus" of the late 1990s, stretching from the unions to Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, which was poised to keep the Tories out of power for a generation.

Shift to the right

There is no equivalent consensus today despite Brown's attempts to revive it by offering Ashdown a job last year. Many in the Conservative Party, and even elements of the Labour Party, would agree with Clegg's analysis of the failure of the social-democratic/Fabian model. But that does not amount to a coalition drawing in disparate elements of society.

If there is a Conservative landslide at the next election, it will be a landslide of despair, brought about by the collapse of Labour's core vote and the unenthusiastic drift of Middle England back to its habitual Tory home. David Cameron may talk about "progressive ends by Conservative means", but make no mistake, the centre of gravity in British politics is shifting to the right.

Such is the electoral maths that it will still be difficult for the Conservatives to win an outright majority. If that is the case, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are all that stands in the way of a Cameron government. In the event of a hung parliament, would Clegg be able to resist the offer of ministerial posts for his party?

In the next 18 months, the Labour Party will be fighting not just for power, but for its very survival. Oddly, this is something the unions seem to understand better than the leadership of the party. The forerunners of Bob Crow's RMT - the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Union of Seamen - were originally allied to the Liberal Party. The unions created the Labour Party for a purpose and they could break it. Without the financial backing of Unite, the party would collapse tomorrow.

The government should start listening to the unions, not out of fear, but out of necessity. Beyond the revolutionary rhetoric, the motions for a general strike and calls to renationalise the coal industry, the real demands of delegates at the TUC were eminently reasonable: public-sector pay settlements that don't amount to a real-terms cut in income, and a windfall tax on the profits of the energy companies to help the poorest survive the winter. The gruesome reality is that people could start dying if they cannot afford to heat their homes. And if they do, the heart of the Labour Party will be buried with them.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran

Show Hide image

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.