Message to the gathered comrades: West Wing was a fiction, not a documentary

by John Woodcock

In this time of iconoclasm on the centre-left, there is one political leader who remains untouched.

We may have signalled the need to move on from Blair and Brown and highlighted lessons from the days of New Labour in government. But there is a continued, unquestioning reverence for a small band of smart, dedicated change-makers gathered around a charismatic leader who shone a beacon for progressive values, no matter how hostile the political landscape. Mulling
over intractable problems, a surprising number of political types have been known openly to make reference to the tactics and strategy that these people deployed in government. And even if they don’t say it out loud, you know that many are thinking about the example they set as they work out what to do.

I am talking, of course, about the Bartlet White House. It is time to cut down to size the influence of the West Wing on the British Labour party.

Stating this instantly runs the risk both of permanently alienating the many West Wing nuts and leaving everyone else wondering why an American drama series that ended in 2006 is remotely relevant to Labour conference this week.

It is not simply because the Woodcock-Telford DVD player happens to be churning its way through the superb box sets again. We should talk about Jed Bartlet, Leo McGarry, Toby Ziegler et al, because that fictional administration is the most compelling representation of an alluring, yet false, idea that confronts us in Liverpool this week: namely, the notion that progressive parties failed because they timidly ran to the centre rather than proudly making belief in the power of state action the defining campaigning issue of the decade.

In the most direct articulation of an ethos that runs through the series, the West Wing writers suggest that President Clinton made a fundamental strategic error when he declared that the era of big government was over. Instead, President Bartlet deletes that line from the state of the union address and flourishes when he wears his liberal values on his sleeve and makes the opposite case.

Similarly, whether or not they are West Wing watchers, many at Labour’s conference will instinctively hope that Ed Miliband’s intention to rip up the rule book and end the Thatcher consensus of the last three decades heralds a return to Labour as the party that unequivocally champions public over private, government over market.

They will be disappointed. Labour under Ed’s leadership will be much smarter than that; instead, the new centre ground that he is mapping out in Liverpool this week will posit the role of a future Labour government as a champion of individuals against vested interests – whether private or state. There were indeed areas in which Labour in government should have been much bolder and moved much faster.

But Labour’s new generation would not weaken the nation’s prosperity by setting itself against the idea of markets. Instead, we will be prepared to take whatever difficult action is necessary to create genuinely free and fair markets that work for all. Labour will be a party that believes in government acting forcefully where necessary, compared to a Tory-led administration that is leaving people to fend for themselves. But we will ultimately be committed to increasing social justice by giving away power to the powerless rather than hoarding the levers of state action in Whitehall.

The problem with the Bartlet “stand up for big government, win big” campaign strategy, is that it is a fiction. A beautiful fiction, but a fiction nevertheless.

We foundered badly when we campaigned on that territory before the last general election. Back then, many around Gordon Brown believed that the demonstrable power of government action to save the world economy was the opportunity to make a wider case for Labour as the party that believed in government against the small state Tories who would have stood back and made the damage much worse.

That was true, and remains so. But, as argued in several chapters of the Purple Book, including mine, the success that progressive parties have had in defining the role of government in the event of a monumental global financial collapse has proved painfully insufficient to convince electorates that they should be trusted to govern in the post-crisis age. Barack Obama won, and much hope rests on him overcoming his current travails, but elsewhere across the world progressive parties have lost ground to the right.

Maybe things would have been different if it had been prime minister Bartlet and his entourage in Number Ten when the whirlwind hit. But while the aides would have been hotter and the repartee snappier, the result may well have been the same.

John Woodcock is Labour and Co-operative MP for Barrow and Furness, and a shadow transport minister.

Tags: , ,

2 Responses to “Message to the gathered comrades: West Wing was a fiction, not a documentary”

  1. aragon says:

    Another story about ‘Scaring the Horses’

    The West Wing may be fiction, but it was attractive to American audiences who are even more right wing than the UK.

    Bartlett wasn’t that left wing, even the Tories love the West Wing.

    What is the choice between three parties all trying to occupy the same patch of ground, for fear of trying anything else.

    “They will be disappointed. Labour under Ed’s leadership will be much smarter than that”

    Emptier rather than smarter is the word I would choose.

    “But we will ultimately be committed to increasing social justice by giving away power to the powerless rather than hoarding the levers of state action in Whitehall.”

    How does this look different from the ‘Big Society’

    And in which fantasy is Gordon Brown anything but a neo-liberal and a poor one. You don’t want my views on Brown, but he never represented a radical left of centre. Other peoples assessment of Brown are damming.

    I haven’t read it, but the Purple Book, but it seems to be a nightmare where Gordon Brown won the last election (Blair did by his own admission David Cameron is Blair MkII).

    Do not present Gordon Brown as anything but a disaster for the country and the party, he is the last person who could be called radical.

  2. aragon says:

    At the risk of hijacking the thread my favorite episode is ‘Talking Points’ (5-19 or 108) where Josh realises the rhetoric does not match the consequences.


    “On the eve of the President’s controversial trade summit meeting in Brussels, Josh is troubled when he learns that Bartlet will reverse his position about sacrificing American jobs to foreign lands.”

Leave a Reply