‘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, 30 November 2012

By-election warning to all three main parties

The by-elections of 2012 show the continuing centrifugal trend in voting, which is well established in political defections (see my posts for 5 and 23 October). Voters and defectors are currently moving away from the centre ground of British politics and in some cases away from voting altogether. Some are persuaded by simplified arguments on complex issues such as immigration and Europe. Some are disillusioned with all the candidates on offer.

In the 1951 election 99.3% of those who voted opted for the three main parties (in fact 96.8% voted for just Labour or the Conservatives). At the 2010 election 88.1% of voters opted for the three main parties (with only 65.1% voting for Labour or the Conservatives). On current trends these figures looks likely to drop further at the next general election.

The main parties are now faced with a strategic choice – chase the voters to the margins, or bring the voters back to the centre ground.  The major parties have generally acted as though ‘addressing’ voters’ issues on Europe and immigration means conceding some ground on policy to smaller parties such as the BNP and Ukip, rather than putting up a robust counter-argument to bring voters back to the centre. 

The three main parties actually have a common interest in addressing the Leveson recommendations, Europe, MPs’ expenses, party funding and immigration. Whether they will or not, remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

John Major's rollercoaster derailed by defections

On this day in 1990 John Major assumed the premiership. In taking over from Margaret Thatcher, he faced the usual difficulties of the successor to a towering political figure (Rosebery succeeding Gladstone, Eden succeeding Churchill, Brown succeeding Blair). 

A key reason for Thatcher’s removal by her parliamentary colleagues had been the belief that she would lead the Conservatives to election defeat. Against expectations, Major managed to win a 21 seat majority in the 1992 election, gained the most votes any leader has for any party before or since and won a personal majority of over 36,000 votes in his Huntingdon constituency. What could possibly go wrong?

While serving briefly as Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming premier, Major had persuaded Thatcher to allow the Pound to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) – the forerunner of the euro. In September 1992, just five months after the election victory, the Pound was forced out of the ERM. In reaction, the Conservative Party became more euro-sceptic and less-disciplined, its economic policy had to be re-written and Major's reputation sank. His party began to crumble at the edges.

Despite vigorous and visible attempts to control his party (including Major’s resorting to resigning and re-contesting the leadership) the Conservative majority in Parliament leaked away, leaving Major running a minority government as he limped towards defeat in 1997.

Four Conservative MPs died and their seats were won by Liberal Democrats in by-elections (Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough & Saddleworth).  Four others died and their seats were won by other parties (Dudley West, Staffordshire South East and Wirral South by Labour, Perth & Kinross by the SNP). 

Two Conservative MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats (Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham). Alan Howarth defected from the Conservatives to Labour and George Gardiner defected to the Referendum Party.

If the four defectors had remained in the party, the Conservatives would still have held a fragile majority in parliament. Individual political defections usually only attract fleeting attention, but their cumulative effect can be game-changing. Defections are not just storms of protest, but can be indicators of political climate change.

The Liberals had been the party most prone to losing defectors in the first half of the 20th century, then it was Labour’s turn with the SDP split in the 1980s, but since the 1990s the Conservatives have been the party most vulnerable to defections.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Historical Precedent for a Conservative-Ukip Pact

Just over a hundred years ago one of the two main British parties of government entered a pact with an emerging smaller party, which shared many of its aims and policies. At the following election both parties made gains and the pact seemed to be a win-win deal.

Could the mooted pact between the Conservatives and Ukip be another match made in political heaven?

A couple of details though – the 1903 Gladstone-MacDonald Pact between the Liberals and the forerunner of the Labour Party was indeed followed by a Liberal landslide victory in 1906 with 400 seats. Labour also won 30 seats. 

The rest is history, of course. By 1922 Labour had overtaken the Liberal Party which dwindled to a low of only 5 seats in 1956. The Party did just survive and (as the Liberal Democrats) has clawed its way back to the current 57 seats. 

Looking at this historical precedent may seem very attractive for Ukip, but David Cameron (who knows his political history) may be less than tempted by a pact.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Women Bishops - Religion and Politics are connected

The debate in the Church of England on women bishops certainly had some parallels with the debate on women’s votes before the First World War – with many men being on the side of reform and some women being against. 

Unlike the situation in America, politics and religion are rarely discussed together in the UK. But what part, if any, does religion still play in British politics?

In Northern Ireland voting is still heavily influenced by religion, with Catholics voting disproportionately for Sinn Fein or the SDLP and Protestants voting predominantly for the Ulster Unionists or the DUP. But has the link between religion and politics disappeared on the mainland?

Not entirely. Catholics’ votes still tend to be skewed towards the Labour Party, Anglicans’ towards the Conservatives and Non-conformists’ to the Liberal Democrats. In 2005 a significant number of Muslim voters switched from Labour to the Liberal Democrats after Labour prime minister Tony Blair led Britain into the invasion of Iraq, against the opposition of the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy’s leadership. Respect also picked up voters as a result.

Britain is yet to have a non-Christian - or even a Catholic - prime minister. All three main parties have had a Jewish leader (Herbert Samuel for the Liberals, Michael Howard for the Conservatives and Ed Miliband for Labour), but none has yet become prime minister. Victorian Tory premier Benjamin Disraeli was born Jewish, but had converted to Christianity before he became prime minister. Tony Blair converted to Catholicism just after he left office.

So, religion still has an impact in British politics. According to my research, religion also has a bearing on political defections. Belonging to a religious minority within his or her party is an indicator of an MP’s increased likelihood to defect. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Peter Morrison's role in Margaret Thatcher's downfall

Today is the anniversary of the first round of the Conservative Party leadership ballot held in 1990 after Michael Heseltine challenged Margaret Thatcher.  At stake was the party leadership and, with it, the premiership. The electorate comprised the 372 Conservative MPs.

The result was that Thatcher achieved a higher number of votes (204) to Heseltine’s 152, but she was 4 votes short of the required 15% margin for outright victory. Although Thatcher declared initially that she would fight on in a second round, she later withdrew from the contest, opening up the way for John Major to win the leadership.  He beat Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, in the second round ballot.

It emerged afterwards in Alan Clark’s Diaries that Thatcher’s campaign manager, Peter Morrison, had been literally asleep on the job of gathering votes for Margaret Thatcher.

If Morrison had persuaded just two MPs to change their vote in Thatcher’s favour, or four abstainers to vote for Thatcher, she would have seen off the challenge. Instead, it was to be the end of Thatcher’s premiership - undefeated in three general elections, but brought down by a narrow shortfall in support within her own party. Peter Morrison, who died in 1995, probably has a lot to answer for.