Cracks in the coalition on immigration

Cable comes out swinging against Cameron’s cap.

Given that the Lib Dems went into the election promising an amnesty for illegal immigrants and ended up supporting the Tories' unworkable cap, it's hardly surprising that Vince Cable feels the need to reassert his liberal credentials.

Cable's declaration that he wants to see as "liberal an immigration policy as it's possible to have" has succeeded in bringing the cabinet's internal divisions out into the open. Pushing the principle of collective ministerial responsiblity to the limit, he revealed that he was "arguing within government" for "the most flexible regime possible".

But as the Spectator's Fraser Nelson points out, the fact that David Cameron's pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year was not included in the coalition agreement means that the policy is up for negotiation -- and rightly so.

Immigration fell significantly during the recession, but net migration of 142,000 in 2009 indicates that Cameron would need to cut immigration by at least 30 per cent to bring the total to less than 100,000. Privately, Tories speak of an even more unrealistic target of 50,000.

Cameron's promise remains unfeasible for several reasons. For a start, the government cannot limit immigration from within the EU without restricting the free movement of labour and throwing the UK's continued membership into doubt. The policy also ignores the 39,000 people who come to the UK on spousal visas after marrying British citizens abroad.

In the case of his India trip, Cameron's declaration that "Britain is open for business" sits uneasily with his belief that the door must be closed to some. Cable may be aware of this, but his call for a "flexible cap" -- a contradiction in terms -- reveals the tangle the government has got itself into.

The most practical and liberal policy would be to abandon the cap altogether but, for now, it looks like the coalition will try to muddle through.

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.