What the ducks at the park made me realise about city living

When I was a kid, Islington wasn’t that posh. It was a place where ordinary people lived – teachers, social workers, writers, and not even famous ones. Parents got together to organise a cheap’n’cheerful playgroup. The local shops included a chippy, a jok

It’s a bright autumn day, and Moe and I are feeding the ducks in the park. These ducks know me well by now. When Larry was just a toddler we used to feed them together, every day. Now Larry is so grown up that he’s gone to nursery by himself for the whole morning. So it’s just Moe and me.

I throw a few breadcrumbs to a friendly-looking lady mallard. But before she can get her beak anywhere near them, a Canada goose barges her out of the way and wolfs down the lot. Cheeky beggar! I throw another handful, deliberately closer to the mallard. But the same thing happens again.

I step back. I survey the scene. There’s no doubt about it – things have changed around this pond. There’s a new hierarchy in place. The mallards used to have a comfortable spot under the weeping willow. There were a few moorhens and pigeons, sure, but they seemed perfectly happy to scoop up whatever the mallards left behind.

Now the whole front section by the fence, prime breadcrumb territory, is occupied by scores of thick-necked Canada geese with beady black eyes and determined expressions. The mallards are lurking hungrily in the water, way out of breadcrumb range. They look miserable, ousted; their once-sleek feathers are ruffled and drab.

Immediately, my heart goes out to those mallards. I know exactly what they are going through. I feel the same way myself when I go back to Islington, where I was brought up. When I was a kid, Islington wasn’t that posh. It was a place where ordinary people lived – teachers, social workers, writers, and not even famous ones. Parents got together to organise a cheap’n’cheerful playgroup. The local shops included a chippy, a joke shop and a shabby boozer.

Now the chippy is an artisan cheesemonger and the joke shop sells laughably expensive designer furniture. The playgroup is full of nannies. This may be fanciful, but to me the new breed of Islingtonians – the ones whose leisurewear of choice is chinos with moccasins; the ones who have upwards of a million quid to pay for a perfectly ordinary house – have something of that beady, determined, Canada goose look about them.

Meanwhile, all of us soft cuddly brown mallards have been pushed out to the suburbs, where we’re huddling together, trying not to feel bitter.

Right. I scoop up Moe and set my jaw in resolve. I am going to get my breadcrumbs to those mallards if it is the last thing I do. Perhaps if I climb up on to the railing of the bridge and get just the right angle . . .

I throw my crumbs. Immediately the Canada geese start to advance in a menacing flock. But the lady mallard has their number. She is quicker off the mark. She is smaller, and more agile, and dammit, she wants those crumbs more than they do. Before any of those great lumbering geese can get involved she has snapped them all up and glided niftily away.

And I may be imagining it, but as she paddles off she looks to me just a little jauntier, because now she knows that Moe and I are on her side. Silently, I make that mallard a solemn promise: we’ll be back tomorrow. And we’ll bring duck seed.

Like the ducks, many have had to take flight from the inner city and settle for a life in the suburbs. Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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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.