‘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, 2 July 2013

Can parliamentarians defect without anyone noticing?

Rather surprisingly, sometimes parliamentarians can defect without anyone noticing.

Most people think of a typical parliamentary defector as an MP crossing the floor of the House of Commons to join another party. In many cases this is exactly what happens, particularly with the recent examples of Quentin Davies, Shaun Woodward and Alan Howarth who all defected from the Conservatives to Labour or Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham who went from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. The same was true of Churchill’s 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 would not involve crossing the floor, nor would a transfer between parties in a governing coalition.

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 grey areas. A whip can be sent and received, but not wanted.

Thomas Robinson was MP for Stretford from 1918 to 1931, but he had an ambiguous relationship with political parties. He said that he ‘acknowledged no party Whip in the House of Commons’. In 1929 he tried to clarify his position by saying: ‘my Liberal friends…generously continued to send me their whip which I have regarded as an act of courtesy. To prevent however any possibility of misunderstanding in the future on this point, I arranged that the sending of the whip to me should be discontinued’.

Gwilym Lloyd-George, son of the former Liberal prime minister defected at some point from the Liberals to the Conservatives. Before the Second World War he was definitely a Liberal MP and by 1951 he was definitely a Conservative MP, but his defection was almost imperceptible. In the intervening period he was in receipt of the Liberal whip but he joined Chamberlain’s National Government in 1939 (while the Liberals and Labour remained outside), he took part in the multi-party wartime coalition and joined Churchill’s 1945 Caretaker Government (which no other Liberal or Labour members did).

There have been other examples where an MP’s party allegiance is no longer clear, as was the case with Cecil L’Estrange Malone, whose constituency chairman had to write and ask him to which party he belonged, as I discussed in my post yesterday.

There have also been examples of hybrid candidates, such as the Constitutionalists in 1924 who temporarily straddled two parties – Liberal and Conservative, although the successful candidates then joined one or other party in the Commons after the election.

Nadine Dorries has mooted the idea of a joint Conservative-Ukip platform at the next election. It would not breach electoral law, but would require the approval of both parties, which looks unlikely.

Labour Co-op MPs, including Ed Balls, do actually carry two party labels already. The Co-operative Party was established in 1917, but since 1927 has allied itself, but not merged, with the Labour Party.

When the Liberals were divided from the 1930s into Liberal and Liberal National branches, many MPs swapped between the factions and some were included in both lists.

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 complicated.  

The House of Lords effectively has three sides, not just government and opposition benches, but also cross-benches. There are currently182 cross-benchers peers, organised to some extent as a group, but not taking any party whip. Some senior Church of England bishops (currently 24 appointed) 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).

For example 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, but he never announced a change of party allegiance.

However, some defections in the House of Lords do attract attention, such as the transfer from the Conservatives to Ukip by Lord Stevens of Ludgate last year.

But, have any parliamentarians defected without anyone noticing? As we can see, it’s not impossible.

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