‘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

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Richard Grayson – Not a Typical Defector

Richard Grayson, formerly the Lib Dem candidate in Hemel Hempstead and one-time director of policy for the party, has set out a long, detailed and reasoned account of why he has left the Liberal Democrats – technically he let his membership lapse, but the net result is the same and Richard is certainly not trying to leave unnoticed.

Having studied the pattern of defections to and from the party over the course of a whole century, I thought it would be useful to try and place Richard’s defection into historical context and see if it fits a pattern.

Historically, most defectors leave to go to another party. Over half of defectors go for better prospects in other parties, slightly fewer defect over policy disagreements and a very small percentage leave due to a personality clash. Most defectors have one over-riding motivation. Defectors usually time their defection around a general election, a change of leadership or a specific event. Most defections are one-off individual decisions, but conform to an overall pattern.

Richard has given us plenty of evidence to consider. His departure seems to be the result of a wide range of policy and personal issues, which have accumulated over several years. From Richard’s earlier articles and comments, it would be no surprise to see him join the Labour Party, but he says that this is just one possibility and not a definite plan. So, Richard’s defection on almost all of these measures is unusual.

Nor does Richard’s defection fit in with the prevailing pattern of political defections. There was a fairly large exodus of support from the Lib Dems to Labour after the coalition was formed, but Lib Dem support now seems to have stabilised. Evidence of this can be seen in defections of councillors and in opinion polls. The prevailing direction of defections nationally is from the Conservatives to Ukip at the moment.

There are at the moment unusually few reasons for defections between parties, with the prospect of another coalition after the next election and almost all parties not being in robust health at the moment.

In response to Richard Grayson’s defection, Tim Bale asks the converse question of Lib Dems – ‘Why stay?’

Apart from the absence of reasons to leave, deep in the psychology of the party is a survivor mentality. It is based on the memory that the Liberals formed famous governments under Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George, that the party came very close to extinction in the 1950s, but that it ‘refused to die’. It has been a long, slow, but fairly steady recovery since then – inevitably with some set-backs along the way.

The near-death experience puts today’s situation into context, encouraging a camaraderie and lack of fear for the future, which is very noticeable among surviving Lib Dems these days. With a share of government again and over ten times the number of MPs which the party had in its darkest days, the current position may be uncomfortable, but it is a lot lot better than it was in the 1950s.

Richard Grayson is not a typical defector. In the same way that he does not mirror many earlier defections, I doubt if many others will see Richard’s thinking as a reflection of their own situation, but only time will tell.


  1. Surely Grayson isn't a defector as he hasn't joined an opposing cause? What we have is a resignation, albeit passive as he allowed membership to lapse rather than terminating it early.

    (BTW I'd not heard about this, so it's a shame you didn't link to an appropriate source for the background.)

    1. Stephen,

      Richard Grayson's article is on the Compass website:



  2. A defection to Labour would be surprising in this case.

    Maybe its my own way of thinking as someone who turned 18 two months before it started, but to transfer to the party of the Iraq War is something I just can't comprehend.

    Currently reading McManus' excellent book on Jo Grimond I certainly am of the view that it is better to be a Liberal now than the 1950s!

  3. Interesting piece Alan - hadn't thought of what had happened in this context!!! Though Stephen Newton is surely technically correct in querying the use of the term 'defection'.
    Best wishes,

  4. Many thanks for your comments, Richard. I did explain that you had let your membership lapse and that you had not left to join another party. If you were now to conform to the pattern of the last century, there is a 15% chance that you will return to the party. I hope this happens.

  5. Thanks Alun (and sorry for writing Alan before)- but that's not what I was querying, nor I think was Stephen. Surely 'defector' in the heading suggests I have gone somewhere else, perhaps colloquially, if not strictly?
    Best wishes,