Nicola Sturgeon answers questions after delivering a speech at University College London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour and the SNP aren't as far apart on austerity as assumed

As a new study by the Resolution Foundation shows, the difference between the two parties could be "relatively modest". 

The possibility (some would even say probability) that the SNP could hold the balance of power after the election means Nicola Sturgeon's speech at UCL this week merits scrutiny. In her address, the Scottish First Minister called for an end to "morally unjustifiable and economically unsustainable" austerity. Since this demand, as I noted on Wednesday, is shared with a significant number of Labour backbenchers it is one that Ed Miliband could struggle to fend off. 

Sturgeon's proposal to increase departmental spending by 0.5 per cent in real-terms for four years would mean an additional £180bn of expenditure across the next parliament compared to the coalition. How big a difference does this represent with Labour? As a valuable new analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows, the gap is not as great as some assume. Ed Balls has pledged to eliminate the current account deficit "as soon as possible" in the next parliament, refusing to name a particular date. Were Labour to balance the budget as early as 2017-18, the difference between the two parties would be large. But were it to wait until 2019-20, the gap would only be around £14bn (not significant when George Osborne has borrowed £200bn more than planned since 2010). 

As the authors, Gavin Kelly and Adam Corlett, note: "The SNP proposal implies increases in total departmental spending of £1-2 billion per year over 4 years; whereas Labour’s 2019-20 scenario implies cuts of £1-2 billion per year over the same period. This is against total departmental spending of around £350 billion. By 2019-20 this difference adds up to roughly a £14 billion gap between the two parties. Now, that’s a real difference but given the scale of the numbers involved, (and the fact that some of Labour’s consolidation may come from tax increases rather than spending cuts), it’s also a relatively modest one." In other words, the rhetorical differences may well be greater than the fiscal ones. 

But the most pertinent point made by the analysis (and one all too often omitted from the current debate) is that the pace of deficit reduction in the next parliament will hinge on the performance of the economy: "None of the party leaders knows any better than you or I what will happen to productivity next year, never mind in 2020. Yet any difference between, say, the Labour and SNP spending plans would be dwarfed by the fiscal implications of even modest boosts (or dips) in productivity. Indeed, even the very large difference between the SNP (or Labour) and the coalition’s plans could be overshadowed by a significant shift in productivity trends." 

It's for this reason that Labour's decision to give itself greater flexibility than the Conservatives (pledging only to achieve a current surplus, rather than an absolute one, and to borrow for investment) is wise. Whether it needs to bargain with the SNP will depend on the post-election arithmetic and political circumstance. But that the potential exists for fiscal compromise is clear. 

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.