Reviews

‘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
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Thursday, 13 June 2013

Morrissey and why the LibDems are short of women


Helena Morrissey has produced a balanced and insightful report into the way in which the Liberal Democrats dealt with (or, rather, did not deal with) complaints about sexual harassment within the party. She also draws out some fascinating observations on the party, which ring true with my research findings which cover the whole century to 2010.

My interest is in the broader picture, but I have just one observation on the specific allegations. Over the years I have had minimal contact with the BBC, other than occasional interviews, but I have been aware of the Jimmy Savile allegations for, perhaps, 25 years. On the other hand, I have been involved with the Liberals and LibDems in one way or another for over 50 years (man and boy, I hasten to add) and I had never heard anything of the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard until they surfaced on Channel 4 News. Whether this is significant, I am not sure. It says nothing of the rights or wrongs of the allegations, but it probably does reinforce one of Helena Morrissey’s overall conclusions that the Liberal Democrat Party is diffuse, complicated, without clear lines of communication and that news or gossip does not necessarily travel as far as you might expect.

Morrissey suggests that the Lib Dems (and, to a greater or lesser extent, other parties) behave more like a family or a religion than a business, tending to pull together in times of difficulty, which encourages members not to complain and to suffer in silence for the greater good.

The report also highlights how a key figure can be the ideal leader for certain circumstances, giving them power and influence, but that when circumstances change, power needs to move on. Margaret Thatcher after 1987, Lloyd George after 1918 and Churchill after 1945 were all previous examples.

Another observation is that political parties are never fully in control of their own destiny. However good a leader and his or her policies are, voters and competing political parties will always have a greater influence on party fortunes. The Liberals/Lib Dems have had to adapt more than most parties over the last century, from the party of government before the First World War to a rump of 5 MPs in the 1950s, followed by a slow and fairly steady recovery, which now amounts to over 50 MPs and a share of government again. This has involved huge changes in reputation, personnel and finance. That the party survived at all, is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story, but here the religious-style beliefs and the diffuse nature of the organisation played a significant part.

My research into all the MPs and former MPs who defected to or from the party between 1910 and 2010 shows that over half the defectors left for better prospects after the Liberal Party declined in the 1920s, that a smaller number left due to policy disputes and that only 3% left due to a personality clash. Of those who left over a policy dispute, many remained on friendly terms with their former party leader, suggesting that the ties were more familial than businesslike.

Only 21 of the 707 Liberal and Lib Dem MPs over the century (just 3.4%) were female, which says a lot about the very slow progress towards equality, but interestingly, the few female MPs were much less likely to defect from the party than their male colleagues.

Political parties are not gender-equal organisations. They are more equal than most religions and many industries, such as banking or architecture. But, they lag way behind professions such as journalism or academia. Even during the Liberals’ darkest years, MPs on average sat for over 10 years, so some inertia is to be expected. But there are cultural reasons why the Lib Dems, despite their genuine belief in equality, have been slow and clumsy putting it into practice. Suffering discrimination in silence is one reason, but the party is a trusting and laissez-faire organisation, much more so than the Labour Party and to a lesser extent than the Conservatives. A trusting and relaxed culture is a positive thing in many ways, but not when it means that half of the population is not able to make a full contribution, because of their gender.

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