‘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

Monday, 4 May 2015

Will 2015 be another 1923 for the Conservatives?

At the 1923 election the Conservatives won the most seats with 258, Labour had 191 and the Liberals (with the Asquith and Lloyd George wings recently reunited) won 159. It was the nearest that the country has ever come to a three-way equal split of seats.

The Conservatives, who had been in power before the election, tried to form a minority government. However, the Liberals and (unsurprisingly) Labour refused to support them on the King’s Speech.

Liberal leader, Asquith could potentially have formed a minority Liberal government, or a coalition with one of the other parties. Instead, he let Labour form their first administration with the words:

"There could be no safer conditions under which to make the experiment" of a Labour government.

Asquith was right in the sense that the first Labour government was not dangerous - indeed it was safe, proper, unadventurous and pretty much unobjectionable, even to its opponents. 

However, the experiment turned out to be worse than dangerous for the Liberals. Once Labour had become a party of government, the Liberals appeared to have lost their purpose and were punished at the next election, held less than a year later in October 1924. Labour lost office in 1924, but the Liberals lost almost three-quarters of their seats, crashing to only 40 MPs.

The precedent of 1923 is pretty scary for all parties.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Conservatives go with 'Safety First' as election slogan

The 1929 general election was the first when women voted on the same terms as men.

The three major parties all seemed to be in contention. Lloyd George was leading the Liberal Party, armed with a library of policies more radical than those of his opponents, including the booklet ‘We can conquer unemployment’ – a far-sighted, but rather impractical, set of policies to reduce unemployment in an unfeasibly short time through road-building and other public works.

The Conservative Party literally took a safety first approach and fought the election under the slogan of ‘Safety First’.

The Labour Party had a manifesto fairly short on detail, but one of its key passages was entitled ‘The Old Bogey’, a rebuttal of Conservative scare stories about the dangers of a Labour government.

In the event the Conservatives had played it too safe, the Liberals too radical and the Labour Party was just reassuring enough.

The Liberals came out of the election with 59 seats – almost the same total as the Liberal Democrats today. The Conservatives won the most votes at 38.2%, compared to Labour’s 37.1%, but the Labour Party won the most seats - 288 - short of an overall majority, but 28 seats ahead of the Conservatives.

It was to be the first of three elections since 1918 where the party with the most votes did not win the most seats, the others being 1951 and February 1974.

The outcome was the second minority Labour government headed by Ramsay MacDonald.

In retrospect, it was actually a good election to have lost. By October of that year the world was sinking into depression as a result of the Wall Street Crash.

The Unluckiest Man in British Politics

Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman has been dubbed the 'Unluckiest Man in British Politics'
Journalist and social reformer, Masterman contested a by-election in Dulwich as the Liberal candidate in 1903, but lost. In the 1906 Liberal landslide he was elected for West Ham North and was re-elected in January 1910. At this stage his career was thriving. He published his well-known book The Condition of England and worked closely with Churchill and Lloyd George on the People's Budget, but in the general election in December 1910, his election was declared void.

Masterman was returned to parliament at a by-election in 1911, this time at Bethnal Green South West. In 1914 he was appointed to the Cabinet. This may not sound too unlucky, but under the rules at the time, newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and re-contest it. Masterman lost the resulting by-election. He tried again in a by-election at Ipswich, but again failed and had to resign from the cabinet.

Masterman eventually returned to the House of Commons in the 1923 general election, as MP for Manchester Rusholme, but he again lost his seat in the 1924 general election.

After this his health declined rapidly, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse. He died in 1927. However, his son, Neville, lived to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2012.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Winner Takes It All? – not necessarily in British politics

In 1980 when ABBA released ‘The Winner Takes It All’ this seemed like a fair reflection on British politics. The Conservative Party had won the most votes and the most seats in the 1979 general election and their party leader, Margaret Thatcher had become prime minister.

But does the First Past the Post system usually deliver the leader of the party with the most votes and the most seats into Number 10?

If we look back over the years since 1900, we can clearly see that this has not always been the case.

In the 1900 election the Conservatives won over 400 seats, but in 1905 they left office before the next general election. The Liberal leader Campbell-Bannerman became prime minister, although his party had fewer seats. In the 1906 election the Liberals won a landslide victory and normal First Past the Post service resumed with the Liberals having won the most votes and the most seats and Campbell-Bannerman remaining as prime minister.

However, it was not long before ‘abnormal’ conditions prevailed again. In the January 1910 election the Conservatives won the most votes, but the Liberals won the most seats and remained in office with the support of Labour and the Irish Nationalists. The next election in December 1910 left the abnormal situation in place and so it continued into the First World War.

In 1916 Lloyd George became prime minister of a coalition government. He was a Liberal, but not the Liberal Party leader. At the end of the war, the 1918 election delivered the premiership back to Lloyd George, who was still not the leader of the party with the most votes or seats.

Briefly from 1922 to 1924 the government was formed by the Conservatives, as the party with the most votes and the most seats and their leader served as prime minister.

But in 1924 the Labour Party formed their first government, without a majority of seats or votes. It lasted for ten months.

Between the end of 1924 and 1929 the Conservatives formed the government as the party which had won the most votes and the most seats, but the 1929 election heralded another ‘anomaly’. The Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald returned to power, but still with fewer votes than the Conservatives. In 1931 the second Labour government collapsed, but Ramsay MacDonald remained as prime minister of a National Government until 1935. In May 1940 Churchill, not the Conservative Party leader at the time, became prime minister, although he did assume the party leadership five months later.

From 1945 to 1951 Labour leader, Attlee served as prime minister as head of the party with the most votes and the most seats. But the 1951 election delivered the premiership back to Churchill even though the Conservatives had won fewer votes than Labour.

‘Normal’ service was then resumed from 1955 to 1974 with the leader of the party with the most votes and seats serving as prime minister. But after the February 1974 election Harold Wilson became prime minister, although Labour had won fewer votes in the election.

During the ABBA era and beyond the leader of the party with the most votes and the most seats has served as prime minister.

In total since 1900 we have had 25 years when the prime minister was not the leader of the party with the most votes and the most seats, so we should not be too surprised if this happens again next month.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Anniversary of one of Churchill's 5 defeats

For a successful politician, Winston Churchill actually clocked up a significant number of electoral defeats, failing to be elected on 5 occasions. Today is the anniversary of one of them – at Manchester North West in 1908.

Churchill was first elected at Oldham in 1900 as a Conservative. He defected to the Liberals in 1904, but did not fight a by-election on his change of party allegiance. He remained MP for Oldham until the 1906 election, when he transferred to Manchester North West.

In 1908 he was appointed to the Board of Trade. The rules then in force required that newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and face re-election. Churchill faced his electorate on 24 April 1908 and lost.

Typically, Churchill bounced back and was found a seat at Dundee just two weeks later. He represented this seat until 1922, when he was again defeated. This time he had to wait two years to make a comeback – at Epping.

In all, Churchill won 16 elections and lost 5.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

1945 – How Churchill won the war, but lost the election

It is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill and nearly seventy years since the 1945 election. Although he is remembered as a highly-successful politician, Churchill in fact failed to win a seat in five of the 21 contests which he fought, and as party leader he never led his party to win the most votes in an election. Despite this, he served as prime minister of three very different governments.

The first was the successful wartime coalition from May 1940 to May 1945. The second was the now almost-forgotten caretaker government, which was in power from May to July 1945 after the other parties withdrew from the coalition in advance of the general election. For thirteen of its members, the 1945 Caretaker Government gave them their only ministerial appointment. They included Ronnie Tree, son of Arthur Tree and Ethel Field, who was appropriately enough appointed as a minister in the Department of Town and Country Planning. One day David Cameron may look back and think that a two-month single-party caretaker government, with a brief reward of office for some of his overlooked MPs, might have been a good idea.

When the votes of the 1945 election were counted in July, Churchill’s Conservative Party had gone down to a crushing defeat at the hands of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. Should Churchill have been surprised by his defeat in 1945? Not really. Opinion polls were available and had consistently been showing a solid lead for the Labour Party. But how did Churchill manage to lose the 1945 election after leading the allies to victory in the war?

Among the excuses which the Conservatives offered was that the Army Bureau of Current Affairs had indoctrinated service personnel to vote Labour. This excuse was at least plausible, but also probably fairly flimsy. Parties tend to cling on to strange excuses after a poor result. After one by-election in the 1950s the Conservatives blamed the size of the constituency for their lacklustre performance, although presumably it was the same size for their opponents!

In 1945 the Conservatives lost the ‘ground war’. The party was in a weakened state on the ground with a depleted band of agents. The Conservatives, in contrast to the other parties, had stuck rigidly to the spirit and the letter of the wartime electoral truce. They had only held one party conference during the war and had put little effort into policy development and constituency organisation.

Public memory had a bearing on the outcome of the 1945 election. Lloyd George was still considered to be the man who won the First World War, but his record as prime minister after the war was dismal, with broken promises, unemployment, industrial unrest and threats to start another war. The popular conclusion was that good war leaders do not necessarily make good peacetime leaders. In 1945 the Conservatives were also still tarred with the taint of being the ‘Guilty Men’, so-called after a book which had appeared in 1940, blaming the party for the policy of appeasement which had failed to prevent the war.

British society had changed during the war and voters had become less class-bound. Evacuation of urban children to rural areas, service of all classes in the armed forces, and civilians sharing bomb shelters with strangers, had all led to a new degree of social mixing. After the First World War many people had wanted a return to life as it had been. After the second, most people wanted a complete break with the past. The forward-looking 1945 Labour pledge: ‘Let us face the future’ generated more enthusiasm that the Conservatives’ plea to let Churchill ‘finish the job’.

Churchill bore much personal responsibility for the failure of the Conservatives’ election campaign, including mis-handling a party election radio broadcast in which he claimed that the Labour Party would have to employ a form of ‘Gestapo’ to implement its policies. Labour leader, Clement Attlee, a moderate and unassuming man, had been responsible for much of Britain’s domestic policy during the war – exactly the area on which most people wanted the post-war government to concentrate. Labour ministers had proved themselves capable in key domestic roles. Although all the parties supported the proposals of the Beveridge Report, the Labour Party was more enthusiastic about its implementation than the Conservatives.

After his 1945 defeat, Churchill remained party leader and led the Conservatives into the following general election in February 1950. But he lost again. However, he was given one more opportunity and he did win the following election in 1951 – at least in terms of seats. The Conservatives won fewer votes but more seats than Labour, and went on to form a government over which Churchill presided for three and a half years until he retired at the age of 80. He survived another ten years and died on 24 January 1965.

A shorter version of my article above appeared on the Conversation:

Monday, 19 January 2015

Ten lords who went a-leaping

Political defections usually hit the headlines, but sometimes parliamentarians can defect without anyone even noticing. Most people think of a typical parliamentary defector as an MP crossing the floor of the House of Commons to join a rival party, as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless did in moving from the Conservatives to UKIP. Churchill is also widely remembered for his ratting and re-ratting between the Conservatives and Liberals.

However, with the growth of multi-party politics, many defections do not necessarily involve the symbolic crossing the floor from government to opposition benches, or vice versa. A defection between two opposition parties does not involve crossing the floor, nor does a transfer between parties in a governing coalition.

There have also been examples of hybrid candidates, such as the Constitutionalists in 1924 who temporarily straddled two parties – Liberal and Conservative. Labour and Co-op MPs, including Ed Balls, carry two party labels. The Co-operative Party was established in 1917, but since 1927 has allied itself, but not merged, with the Labour Party.

Party allegiance is usually defined as being in receipt of a party’s whip (a set of briefing papers), but this can leave room for doubt. A whip can be sent and received, but not wanted. There have been examples where an MP’s party allegiance is no longer clear, as was the case with Cecil L’Estrange Malone in 1920, whose constituency chairman had to write and ask him to which party he belonged.

So far, we have only looked at the House of Commons. If it is not always easy to be certain of an MP’s party allegiance, for members of the House of Lords it can be much more difficult still. 

The House of Lords effectively has three sides - not just government and opposition benches, but also cross-benches. There are currently 176 cross-benchers peers, organised to some extent as a group, but not taking any party whip. Some senior Church of England bishops (currently 24) also sit in the House of Lords. They do not belong to any political party or grouping and are not considered to be cross-benchers either. Peers do not have to stand in general elections under a party banner or send out material to constituents. Many lords rarely attend parliament and do not hold ministerial or party office, so there is little evidence of their party allegiance (if any).

Sometimes when lords go a-leaping from one party to another they do cause a bit of a stir, such as the transfers from the Conservatives to UKIP by Lord Stevens of Ludgate, by Lord Willoughby de Broke and by Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

But others can go unnoticed at the time. Robert Munro was a Liberal MP until 1922. He then went to the House of Lords as Baron Alness (the change of name making his career harder to follow) and eventually in 1945 appeared in Churchill’s Caretaker Government, suggesting that he considered himself a Conservative by then, although he never announced a change of party allegiance.

Lord Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader, is now a Conservative member of the House of Lords, although the two parties are now separate.

Then there are peers with hereditary titles, where succeeding generations take a different party whip from their forebears. Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin went to the Lords on his retirement, but his son Oliver, who became the second Earl Baldwin, took the Labour whip. The current (fourth) Earl Baldwin is a cross-bencher. In the opposite direction, the current Lord Attlee, grandson of Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, is a Conservative. Viscount Tenby, grandson of Liberal prime minister Lloyd George and son of a Conservative peer, is a cross-bencher. Lord Trefgarne is a Conservative peer, although he is the son of George Garro-Jones, who was a Liberal, then Labour, then a Liberal again. Viscount Simon, a Labour peer, is the grandson of the first Viscount, who was a Liberal and later a Liberal National politician. 

So, although these ten lords went a-leaping, most of them leapt in the dark. Hardly anyone noticed. 

A version of this article first appeared on the Conversation