Miliband's energy price cap is a brilliant trap for the Tories

The Tories' natural aversion to price controls means they will struggle to support a cap, leaving Miliband free to present Cameron as siding with the companies over the consumers.

After spending the summer telling voters that they're worse off under the Tories, Ed Miliband knew that he needed an emblematic policy that would show them how they'd be better off under Labour. The result, unveiled in his speech, was a pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017. Miliband said: "The next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017. Your bills will be frozen, benefitting millions of families and millions of businesses. That is what I mean by a government that fights for you. That's what I mean when I say: Britain can do better than this."

One senior Labour strategist told me after the speech that the party had focused-grouped the policy and that voter approval was "off the scale". Polling has consistently shown that of every 'cost-of-living' issue, it is energy prices that are the public's greatest concern. With this intervention, Miliband has framed himself as a strong leader prepared to stand up to predatory firms on behalf of the little guy. He noted that "the companies won't like it because it will cost them money" but added: "they have been overcharging people for so long because the market does not work. And we need to press the reset button." The party calculates that the move, which will be backed by legislation in the first month of a Labour government, will save consumers £120 and businesses £1,800.

While the Tories have capped benefits and immigration, Miliband has smartly borrowed this device to show how Labour would tackle the 'cost of living crisis" it has so often bemoaned. The question now is how the Conservaties will respond: will they steal it or kill it? David Cameron has promised action to force firms "to give the lowest tariff to their customers" but this falls well short of Miliband's pledge, and charities and consumer groups warn that it will have little meaningful effect on prices.

So far, the Tory attack machine has responded by claiming that Miliband's commitment to a 2030 decarbonisation target would add £125 to households' energy bills but soon Cameron will be forced to answer the question that Labour will inevitably pose: are you for a cap or against one?

The Tories' natural free-market aversion to price controls means it will be hard for Cameron to support any form of cap, but he will be reluctant to allow Labour to claim that he has taken the side of companies over consumers and again stood up for the "wrong people". At the moment, the Tories' response to Miliband's cap seems to be to change the subject. But as Labour found in the case of welfare and immigration, that is a politically fraught course. With his announcement today, Miliband has set a brilliant trap for Cameron that the Conservatives will struggle to avoid walking into. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech to the Labour conference in Brighton. 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.