PoliticsHome can remain impartial

Does the purchase of the website by Lord Ashcroft mark the end of its neutral stance? Not necessaril

Does the acquisition of PoliticsHome by Lord Ashcroft threaten the website's impartiality? Many on the liberal left think it does. Following the departure of the Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley as editor-in-chief, at least 21 left-leaning figures have resigned from the site's panel of 100 Westminster insiders.

The group resignation letter on Liberal Conspiracy cited concerns that the sale of a controlling stake in PoliticsHome to Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, was incompatible with the site's non-partisan stance.

The first point to make is that Ashcroft is surely self-interested enough to recognise that if he undermines the site's independence PoliticsHome will lose all credibility.

Total Politics, the magazine part-owned by Ashcroft, hasn't degenerated into a right-wing Pravda; that suggests the billionaire may be capable of separating his commercial interests from his political interests. The Labour MP Denis MacShane was one of those who resigned from the PoliticsHome panel, but he appears content to sit on the Total Politics editorial board.

Yet even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Ashcroft intends to transform the site into a partisan operation, there is little scope for him to do so. PoliticsHome is dominated by news aggregation and polling and currently features no opinionated commentary. Could this change under Ashcroft's ownership? Perhaps, but let's wait and see.

There's no evidence that the permanent involvement of the conservative Stephan Shakespeare, until recently sole owner of PoliticsHome, has compromised the site's impartiality. Certainly in my time at PoliticsHome (I worked there before joining the NS), I saw nothing to suggest that Shakespeare exercised Richard Desmond-style control. His links to the Conservative Party as Jeffrey Archer's former spokesman and as a former Tory election candidate were never disguised.

The backlash from the left is based largely on two factors. First, a supposition that Rawnsley's decision to resign means he must know something we don't. And second, a general disdain for Ashcroft, because of the millions he pours into marginal constituencies and his failure to clarify his tax status.

These are reasonable grievances against Ashcroft and they're ones I share, but it's a different argument. Is there a risk that PoliticsHome could acquire a subtle bias by giving less weight to stories that are likely to upset or anger Ashcroft? There is, but it's a risk greatly increased by the decision of so many on the left to sever their ties with the site.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.