Lord Ashcroft attacks Conservative poster as "juvenile"

Tory donor denounces anti-Labour poster as a "silly stunt".

If David Cameron was hoping that his recent appointment of Lord Ashcroft to the Privy Council would assuage the Conservative peer, it looks as if he was mistaken. Writing on ConservativeHome, the site he owns, the Tory donor has penned a vociferous critique of the Conservatives' latest poster, denouncing it as "daft" and "juvenile". He writes:

It is not clear how much the Conservative Party has paid M&C Saatchi to come up with the daft poster, unveiled over the weekend, depicting Ed Miliband and Ed Balls as gormless schoolboys under the slogan 'Labour Isn't Learning'. Nor do I know how much it cost to hire the ad van to drive the thing pointlessly around Manchester. What I do know is that if I had recently donated funds to the Tories I would be asking what on earth CCHQ thought it was doing with my money ...

... Like the ubiquitous 'Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?' campaign in 2005, which invited the simple response 'No', the declaration that 'Labour Isn't Learning' prompts people to wonder whether the Tories are themselves listening. It suggests we see the whole thing as a big game.

As Ashcroft suggests, the Tories' own economic record means votes are unlikely to be receptive to such partisan attacks. The country is mired a double-dip recession and, based on the most recent independent forecasts, George Osborne is set to borrow £191bn more than originally intended. If the Tories want to recover the ground they've lost, they should focus on adopting policies that produce growth, rather than recession. As Paul Krugman sagely observed in a recent essay for the New York Review of Books, "the economic strategy that works best politically isn’t the strategy that finds approval with focus groups, let alone with the editorial page of The Washington Post; it’s the strategy that actually delivers results." Until Osborne and David Cameron learn this lesson, there is little prospect of a Conservative recovery.

Conservative donor and former deputy party chairman Lord Ashcroft. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.