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.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.