‘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 March 2013

By-election Victories Ranked by Importance

Since 1945 the Liberals/LibDems have won 30 by-elections. (This includes five which were defences of seats already held – Montgomeryshire, Truro, Cheadle, Winchester and Eastleigh, but excludes SDP victories.) Which was the most important victory?

Three possible objective measures of importance could be analysed:

1) Swing - the percentage change in votes cast at the by-election

2) Durability - the number of years the seat was subsequently continuously held

3) Political importance of the winner - the positions held by the winning candidate
The top 3 victories on each of these measures would be:


Top: Bermondsey 1983 (44.2%), Second: Christchurch 1993 (35.4%), Third: Sutton and Cheam 1972 (32.6%)

Durability of Victory:

Top: Roxburgh 1965 (48 years), Second: Berwick 1973 (40 years), Third: Bermondsey 1983 (30 years)

Importance of Winner:

Top: Roxburgh (David Steel, party leader), Second: Bermondsey (Simon Hughes, deputy party leader, party president), Third: Berwick-upon-Tweed (Alan Beith, party deputy leader)

Combining these measures would put Roxburgh (1965) and Bermondsey (1983) joint most important, followed by Berwick (1973) then Christchurch (1993).

However, these figures only tell part of the story. Another important, but subjective, way of evaluating the victories would be the extent to which the result changed the prevailing political narrative - Did commentators see it as a turning point? Did other parties behave differently afterwards? Did it produce a sustained upward trend in Liberal/LibDem support?

This is one of the reasons that political history is so fascinating - although the events are in the past, the estimation of the events in the present can change (historiography to use the jargon). Historians tend to look back at Torrington and Orpington as the key victories. Torrington was the first of the Liberal post-war victories, but it was only held for one year, until the Conservatives won the 1959 election and regained the seat. Orpington gave a severe jolt to the Conservative Party’s confidence about winning the next election and demonstrated that the Liberals were much more resilient than the other parties believed. The Conservatives were defeated in the 1964 election and Eric Lubbock held on to Orpington. Eastleigh (2103) may well come to symbolise a similar change in the political narrative.

The main contender to add to this list (as supported by Michael Crick and Stephen Williams MP) is Eastbourne (1990). This was a watershed victory under unusual circumstances. At the tail end of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, her former close confidant and Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Ian Gow, was killed by an IRA bomb. Paddy Ashdown as leader of the (then new and struggling) Liberal Democrats initially decided that it would be wrong and undignified to contest the by-election. He was persuaded to change his mind and David Bellotti won the seat for the LibDems with a majoirty of 4,500. The result fed into the narrative of Margaret Thatcher's decline and convinced commentators that the LibDem 'parrot (of Monty Python fame) had twitched'.

Eastleigh (2013) may yet turn out to be more of a squawk than just a twitch. We will have to keep our eyes, ears and minds open on that one for the time being.

Provisionally then, (historiography in mind) the overall most important by-election victories can be considered to be (not necessarily in this order) Orpington, Roxburgh, Bermondsey and Eastbourne, with the possible future addition of Eastleigh (2013). Others may want to disagree - please feel free. There is often not just one right conclusion to be drawn from history (although there have been many wrong ones).

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