‘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

Friday, 5 October 2012

Defectors: Tony Benn’s advice about chimney sweeps

In the light of recent defections, especially those from the Conservatives to UKIP, here are a few rules which history suggests could help party leaders deal with potential defectors. 

Do not change policies to avoid defections - it will only encourage others to threaten to defect and it is likely to draw your policies away from the centre ground, where most of the voters are. Smaller parties, especially those on the right, tend to be fragile, prone to leadership tussles and internal rifts. They provide the most unstable element of our otherwise very inert political system.

Party leaders and whips should draw up a list of potential defectors from their party. They should divide it into two categories – those they want to keep and those they would be happy to lose, taking into account the situation in their constituencies, their abilities and their links within the party. 

Ignore the second category completely. If they leave, play down their significance and do not get into a slanging match with them. In the words of advice which Tony Benn told me his father offered him ‘Don’t wrestle with a chimney sweep’ – you will both end up covered in dirt.

With the first category, party leaders should listen to them and go out of their way personally to befriend them – friendship cannot be delegated. Alexander MacCallum Scott, who defected from the Liberal Party to Labour in the 1920s, said that he would probably have stayed, but squabbling party leaders Asquith and Lloyd George ‘held out no hand’.


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