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George Osborne’s love bombing of Labour voters should terrify the opposition

The Chancellor's speech was his most ruthless attempt yet to conquer the ground the party regards as its own. 

Mischievous fellow that he is, George Osborne could not resist using his Conservative conference speech to have a dig at his erstwhile nemesis, Ed Balls. It was Andrea Jenkyns, the Tory who dislodged Balls in Morley and Outwood, who introduced the Chancellor on stage. "If I’d told you twelve months ago that the Member of Parliament for Morley and Outwood was going to come onto this stage and speak in our economy debate you’d have called security," Osborne went on to quip. 

But his speech showed that he has ambitions far greater than merely capturing Labour seats. He wants to colonise the political territory that the party has for so long regarded as its own. After introducing a "national living wage", clamping down on non-doms and recruiting former Labour peer Andrew Adonis, now a cross-bencher, to lead a National Infrastructure Commission (an idea shamelessly poached from Balls), Osborne made a series of further ruthless raids. He announced that local councils would be allowed to keep all of the £26bn raised by business rates (in return for the abolition of government grants), another policy lifted wholesale from the Labour manifesto. In a twist, he added that they would be free to cut rates by "as much as they like - it’s up to them to judge whether they can afford it." The dangers are obvious: poorer councils could be penalised, while others find themselves in fiscal chaos. But Osborne, aware that big rewards come from big risks, has unambiguously claimed the mantle of devolution for the Tories (a subject about which Jeremy Corbyn has said remarkably little). It is ground that Labour will struggle to wrest back - if it even wants to. 

More deadly than any policy, however, was Osborne's sustained love-bombing of the millions who voted for the opposition. In victory, the Chancellor has behaved with greater humbleness than his Labour opponents did in defeat. "Millions of working people. These people need to know we are on their side. Because many of them, let’s be frank, still voted for the Labour Party just this May. They want security and opportunity, but they didn’t quite feel able to put their trust in us. We’ve got to understand their reservations," he said, displaying the self-reflection that was so absent from Labour's gathering in Brighton. He added: "Do you know what the supporters of the new Labour leadership now call anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy, and the country living within its means? They call them Tories. Well, it’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour." And there was more: "I think it’s a great weakness of today’s Labour Party that it can’t acknowledge any good things done by Conservatives. I’ll always pay tribute to the role the Labour movement played in building the NHS and establishing rights in the workplace."

It would be an error for Labour to merely dismiss this as empty rhetoric. Rather, it must craft a positive and relevant vision that overpowers Osborne's. And as he woos the 9.3 million who voted Labour, it should ponder what it is doing to appeal to the two million more who voted Conservative. As Osborne showed today, a good start is to stop insulting them. 

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for the Chancellor: the reduction in tax credits for the very "strivers" he claims to back, the huge, and many believe undeliverable, cuts to public services. But as the experience of the last five years showed, the opposition cannot complacently assume that Tory failure leads to Labour success. Osborne's speech, delivered with the confidence of a leadership frontrunner, should terrify his opponents. It is a mark of Labour's woes that it almost certainly will not. 

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.