‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Theresa May – a well-prepared geographer’s uneventful climb to the top

David Cameron has made one of the greatest unforced errors in British political history, by gambling on calling the EU referendum and losing. In terms of his career and reputation, Cameron’s mistake was bigger than Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s error in calling an unnecessary election in 1923, on the issue of protection. Baldwin lost, but later came back to serve two more terms as premier. It is hard to imagine Cameron staging a return.

An ironic twist which may yet play out is that the result of the referendum could be declared void. As pointed out (now rather inconveniently) by Sir William Cash, the pro-Leave MP in the House Commons, but now given greater prominence by Dr Peter Catterall of the University of Westminster, the government failed to follow its own rules which it set out in the 2015 European Referendum Act. 

The government obliged itself to produce two documents, one that set out the benefits of membership and the other which set out the alternatives to membership. This did not happen and arguably the whole debate would have been much better informed if it had. The voters might get a second go. The experiences of 1974 and 1910, when we had two general elections in one year, suggest that there might be little change, but then little change could produce a different result.

Cameron’s motive in holding the referendum was to heal the split in the Conservative Party over Europe – this may yet be achieved, but not on his watch. Despite his personal demise, David Cameron’s party remains in power, the leaders of the Leave campaign have been defeated in the contest for the Conservative Party leadership and one of his three designated potential successors has taken over – Theresa May.

Theresa May, as many commentators are helpfully pointing out, is female. The BBC couldn’t help mentioning her taste in shoes in the second bullet point of its ‘Who is Theresa May?’ guide. As a female who wears shoes, Theresa May is in many ways quite unremarkable in British politics. She is the second female to become prime minister and the second from the Conservative Party – the party which had the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons and the party which introduced equal votes for men and women in 1928. The leaders of the Scottish Conservatives, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Scottish Labour and the DUP are all female and possibly soon so will be the leaders of Labour and UKIP.

The Queen (also female and shoe-wearing) has now seen 13 changes of prime minister during her reign, only six of them resulted from a general election (Wilson twice, Heath, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron). The others, like May, arrived mid-term (Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major and Brown).

Theresa May’s arrival is therefore in many ways unremarkable. She has a solid track record in office, which is more typical of the era of Eden, Macmillan, Callaghan, Major and Brown, of holding a key cabinet portfolio before becoming prime minister. The example of Blair and Cameron landing straight in the premiership without any ministerial experience is unique in modern times.

Both Blair and Cameron seem to have been undone by this inexperience. As revealed in the Chilcot Report, Tony Blair did not use cabinet procedures effectively over Iraq. If he had served in a cabinet before, he might have used a different approach to decision-making. In a similar vein, David Cameron seems to have underestimated the difficulty of holding the premiership, allegedly asking ‘How hard can it be?’ He now has the answer, at the end of his premiership. Theresa May knows it from the beginning. Like Margaret Thatcher, May is regarded as having been nervous in her earlier ministerial career, but to have overcome this through hard work and attention to detail.

May also arrives in the premiership with a whole herd of scapegoats. She plans to implement the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum. But, if the House of Commons is ruled to be sovereign and blocks the signing of Article 50 or the referendum result is overturned by legal means, May will not be to blame and will not be too distraught that others have prevented her taking the path which was not her original choice. If the economy turns down, this will be exactly what Theresa May and the Remain campaign were warning.

Theresa May has shown that she is literally down-to-earth. Her degree is in geography. As all climbers are aware, you need a knowledge of geography to get to the top. She has also not set up many hostages to fortune on the way up, with no grand ambitions for a ‘classless’ or ‘big’ society as Major and Cameron promised. She should be able to fulfil her objective of bringing more women into government, though her spokesperson has rather over-egged her role with a claim that May ‘set up the campaign to elect more female MPs’. Many could argue that this campaign actually started before May was even born.

May is under little pressure to hold an early general election. If she does, she has the luxury of being fairly sure that she would win. While May was drawing up her cabinet list, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn was in a meeting to decide whether his party’s internal rules allow him to stand in a contest for the job he already has, despite most of his parliamentary colleagues having no confidence in him. If May waits, as John Major showed, a Conservative government that runs out of time during a recession can still be re-elected.

As Theresa May’s ministerial career, age and gender are all within the bounds of a typical British prime minister, she should end up, rightly, being judged on her actual performance in office, dealing with ‘events’, in the words of her predecessor Harold Macmillan. It could all come down to ‘events, dear girl, events’.

My post above originally appeared on Democratic Audit.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Predicting the 2020 election? We are not even sure if the results of 2015 are going to change.

5 May 2016 was a day of extraordinary political headlines. ‘Conservatives take a seat from Labour in Glasgow’. ‘Lib Dems win two seats from the SNP’. ‘Disgraced former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton is elected for UKIP in Wales’. ‘Labour wins the London mayoral election after Conservative campaign backfires’. ‘A party which had a Jewish leader until last year is criticised as antisemitic’.

The temptation is to ask what this tells us about the next general election. All other things being equal, it says that Labour will probably not win the 2020 general election. But, all other things will not be equal. By then we will have had the EU referendum and at least one change of party leader - maybe more. Did voters or commentators in 1912, 1929, 1935 or 1981 have any idea what was going to happen at the next election? To focus on an unknowable event four years hence is to miss out on a fascinating prospect in the meantime.

What do the results from around the country and from a variety of types of election tell us about the situation now?

The election for London mayor may tell us quite a lot. One credible and interesting candidate from a minority religious background was completely hobbled by a ham-fisted negative campaign from his own party’s advisors, while another credible and interesting candidate from a minority religious background won the race, despite general media hostility. It shows that a hostile press does not carry as much weight as it likes to think it does. It probably marks the end of Sir Lynton Crosby’s firm’s meddling in British politics and a move away from vicious negative campaigning. Tactics which worked in Smethwick in 1964, do not work in London in 2016. In most trends, where London leads, the rest of the UK follows.

The Scottish Parliament election tells us something else. The top three parties were all led by women. The Conservative Party is not dead in Scotland. While Wales tends to follow English ups and downs, Scotland tends to move seismically, and not swing back. The Liberals dominated Scotland up to 1910. The Conservatives held the most seats in Scotland on and off until 1955. Labour then took over and dominated Scottish politics until their eclipse by the SNP. The Greens may be looking to take their turn next. Despite their fall from dominance, the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour Party in Scotland are not dead yet.

Parties are being created at a faster rate than they are dying. Voters are getting more choice – an average of six candidates per seat in a general election. In a crowded field, personalities stand out better. Identikit candidates get lost in the noise. One consequence of the growing number of parties is that no party attempts to win anything like half the vote any more. All can appeal to minorities and ignore large swathes of the electorate. Tony Blair managed a majority on only 35% of the vote in 2005 and David Cameron managed one with 37% in 2015.

This means that, on average, leaders and parties are less popular than they used to be. Usually at least 60% of the electorate is not supporting any particular leader or party. Social media amplifies the apparent level of discontent, creating an impression that current leaders are not up to the quality of past leaders. This is generally not true, but it does mean that personalities are becoming more important than policies – hence the prominence of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo and Donald Trump. With greater choice, voters need to be able to pick out someone different, especially when there is so much overlap between parties’ policies.

The results also tend to contradict the old idea that split parties do not do well in elections. Sadiq Khan did not exactly collaborate with Jeremy Corbyn in the mayoral contest, but he won. The Conservatives are not exactly seeing eye to eye over Europe. David Cameron did not win the Conservatives’ new seats in Scotland – that was Ruth Davidson’s achievement. Perhaps we are moving beyond the capacity for any one leader to be able to succeed in campaigns in London, rural England, urban England, Wales and Scotland. The voting systems are different and in Northern Ireland even the parties are different.

The opinion polls, warily regarded after 2015, called most of the 5 May results correctly. However, they generally overstated the SNP’s prospective vote and understated the Conservatives’. The next big test for the pollsters will be the EU referendum. At the moment the poll of polls shows a 50/50 Remain/Leave split. This alone does not tell us which side is likely to win, so the opinion polls are of little help. The oscillations in the poll of poll total tend to be accounted for more by whether the most recent polls were conducted by phone (generally showing a Remain lead) or on-line (showing a slim advantage to Leave). The pollsters do not routinely include voters in Northern Ireland, Gibraltar or overseas voters eligible to vote in the referendum if they have been on the UK electoral roll in the last 15 years. So we have no sure guide to the outcome of the next critical event.

But, before we gaze too far into the foggy future, let’s make sure of the past. Economists are mocked for their inability to forecast: ‘What is your prediction for the economy for next year?’ ‘I don’t know about next year; I am having enough trouble forecasting last year!’ is a well-worn joke at the expense of economists. Political commentators are not necessarily much more prescient. Channel 4 News research of Conservative election expenses in the 2015 general election, which are now subject to police investigations, may lead to a re-run of some of last year’s election contests. At least ten Conservative-held constituencies are to be investigated – and the government only has a majority of 12 seats. If these marginal contests are re-run, will the other parties stand aside to let the best-placed challenger have a clear run? Neil Hamilton, newly-elected AM in Wales, may have some memories of something like this happening in Tatton in 1997.

This post originally appeared on Democratic Audit

Friday, 8 April 2016

Iain Duncan Smith's Gladstonian resignation

It is a rare feat for a part-Japanese Catholic to get his first job in cabinet seven years after stepping down as Conservative Party leader. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) achieved this unusual order of appointments, but on 18 March 2016 he resigned from David Cameron’s cabinet after six years as Work and Pensions Secretary.

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation has been the most confusing since Gladstone resigned from the Conservative government of 1845. Gladstone was a member of Peel's ministry which proposed increasing the annual grant to the Maynooth Seminary for training Catholic priests in Ireland. Gladstone had previously argued that a Protestant country should not pay money to other churches, but he supported the increase in the Maynooth grant and voted for it in the Commons. However, he resigned rather than face the charge that he had compromised his principles to remain in office. Peel confessed himself confused over Gladstone’s actions.

David Cameron claimed that he was ‘puzzled’ over Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from his cabinet, writing: ‘I regret that you have chosen to step down from the Government at this moment. Together we designed the Personal Independence Payment to support the most vulnerable and to give disabled people more independence…we collectively agreed – you, No 10 and the Treasury – proposals which you and your Department then announced a week ago. Today we agreed not to proceed with the policies in their current form and instead to work together to get these policies right over the coming months. In the light of this, I am puzzled and disappointed that you have chosen to resign.’
IDS perversely claimed that he had relinquished responsibility for his departments as he was ‘unable to watch passively whilst certain policies’ were enacted. He also insisted that his resignation was nothing to do with the forthcoming EU referendum.

Iain Duncan Smith’s correspondence with the Prime Minister ranks among the more terse, turgid and ungrateful of resignation exchanges. David Cameron (unnecessarily) pointed out in his letter that he and IDS are on opposite sides in the EU referendum debate. But, Duncan Smith’s supporters in the debate have been offering him conspicuously faint praise, as in the case of Jacob Rees-Mogg who said that IDS had been ‘as important a welfare secretary as I can think of…I think it is deeply concerning that a man of the stature and standing of Iain Duncan Smith should be pushed into this position’. None of which really explains anything at all.

But all of this is part of a pattern in Iain Duncan Smith’s career. His record suggests that he has not been entirely comfortable with his own position at several stages of his life, leading a certain amount of obfuscation and inauthenticity.

Earlier versions of his cv stated that he went to the University of Perugia (1998), but this was later corrected to say that he had attended Universita per Stranieri (2005), which he left without a qualification. Different versions of his entry in Dod’s Parliamentary Companion suggest that he was a director of Bellwing Property (1994), but this was later changed to Bellwinch Property (2005). 

Duncan Smith served in the Scots Guards from 1975 to 1981, but only received one promotion during this time and retired as a first lieutenant. He then left the army without another job to go to. His education then continued at Dunchurch College of Management, according to his cv (1998). It was later clarified that the college was the in-house training centre for GEC, which ran short courses attended by Duncan Smith during his time with the company.

IDS’s discomfort with himself was most clearly displayed in his ‘quiet man’ speech. As Conservative Party leader since William Hague’s resignation in 2001, IDS struggled to find his political voice. Two years into the role, and fighting for his career, he claimed that ‘the quiet man is here to stay and he’s TURNING UP THE VOLUME’. However, his parliamentary colleagues did not like what they heard and he was ousted in a vote of no confidence in October 2003. His awkward reference to himself in the third person calls to mind other prominent examples - Margaret Thatcher ‘We have become a grandmother’ (1989) and more recently Donald Trump announcing that: ‘Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims…’ (2016).

IDS has built his career on obfuscation and confusion. His resignation may seem as opaque as Gladstone’s but Gladstone, of course, did go on to serve four terms as prime minister of another party. 

My post above orignally appeared on the Democratic Audit blog.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Perverse benefits of messy Corbyn reshuffle

Jeremy Corbyn has just made a minor, unnecessary, protracted and botched reshuffle. It has received a huge amount of media coverage. This was quite a perverse feat for a minor opposition reshuffle. Who noticed when Michael Howard or Ed Miliband shuffled his pack? If the reshuffle had not been so over-hyped, slow and clumsy, it would not have received so much attention. As former spin doctor Damian McBride pointed out in his book Power Trip, the Blair/Brown feud kept the Labour Party in the media and the Conservatives in the shadows. Corbyn’s clumsy reshuffle has kept the Labour Party in the news, raised the profile of some of the key shadow cabinet figures and even increased the name recognition of some barely-known Labour MPs. Corbyn has once again confounded expectations.

Jeremy Corbyn achieved more coverage than the Prime Minister last week, even though David Cameron made the important announcement that his cabinet ministers would be allowed to disagree over the forthcoming EU referendum without having to resign. Maybe the tolerance of dissent in the Labour Party has made it easier for Cameron to allow some open disagreement among the Conservatives. Revealing dissent within political parties is not necessarily a bad thing. If it is not open, then the media will be looking for it anyway and are likely to find (or help to create) it.
So, does the era of open disagreement spell the end of the major political parties or the beginning of a new politics?

Harold Wilson allowed his ministers to disagree during the 1975 EEC referendum. When the referendum was over, the Labour ministers accepted the result and got on with their jobs. However, the Conservatives may find that party unity does not follow the EU referendum, whatever the outcome.

History suggests though that harmony does not always bring rewards at the ballot box or robust and lasting policies. Anthony Eden’s loyal cabinet did nothing to prevent the Suez Crisis. John Major’s all-male cabinet of chums watched united as the pound was forced from the ERM - although it did bring in the Dangerous Dogs Act and the Cones Hotline. Ted Heath liked to keep his faithful, leak-proof team intact and when he won the 1970 election virtually all his ministers moved into the jobs which they had been shadowing. It worked for one month, until his chancellor, Ian Macleod suddenly died. There was no obvious successor challenging for the job and Macleod’s hastily-chosen replacement, Anthony Barber, was not a success.

Successful ministers have emerged from shadows many times and from many parties. Since the devolutions of the 1990s, ten parties have provided ministers for the Westminster, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh administrations. Proving the sceptics wrong, all these parties have managed to field competent ministers.

Jeremy Corbyn’s problems in assembling his team echo the difficulties which Ramsay MacDonald had in 1924 to appoint the first ever Labour cabinet. He had a limited pool of talent to fish in and had to include defectors from other parties and members of the House of Lords. However, MacDonald went on to lead a competent, if undramatic, administration which confounded expectations of incompetence or extremism. Relations with Russia did not turn out to be the crucial issue then and attitudes to nuclear weapons are probably not going to be the defining issue now.

It may be wrong to assume that Labour has damaged its prospects by the messy reshuffle, but it may also turn out to be wrong that the Conservatives will benefit from following Labour’s example of open dissent. Most of us will never actually know if Trident ever really existed. Europe, on the other hand was definitely still there last time anyone looked.

This post first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog

Sunday, 1 November 2015

William Wedgwood Benn's recipe for a healthy life

As a teetotaller, William Wedgwood Benn's health was preserved from the ravages of alcohol which affected so many politicians, including Asquith, Masterman, Clement Davies and John Smith. Benn was a tea drinker - but not to quite the extent of his son, Tony who was calculated to have drunk 29,000 gallons over the course of his life. The timing of Benn’s tea drinking may not have helped his overall well-being though, given that a good night’s sleep seems to correlate with good health. Benn used to take a thermos of tea to bed with him. He found that if he woke up in the night (typically at about 03.00), his mind was usually clear and he could have a productive thinking session, prolonged by the tea. As most people have found out though, this is not an ideal way to get back to sleep. As with most other aspects of his life, Benn kept detailed records of his health. In amongst mentions of ‘bad nights’, ‘coughs’ and ‘tight chest’ are more prosaic entries such as ‘left nostril closed’ and ‘slight vomiting’ [an unusual ailment, as for most people it tends to be more of an all-or-nothing occurrence], but there were other more positive entries, even past the age of eighty, such as ‘very well’ and ‘all night party at the Savoy did no harm’.

This is an extract from Political Wings, my biography of William Wedgwood Benn, first Viscount Stansgate, published by Pen & Sword