‘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, 18 October 2013

Newport by-election - famous, but for the right reasons?

Today is the anniversary of the Newport by-election of 1922. Of all by-elections, this was one of the most consequential.

It was held during the Lloyd George Liberal-Conservative coalition, which had been re-elected after the end of the Great War. The by-election was caused by the death of the sitting MP, Lewis Haslam, who was a Liberal supporter of Lloyd George and the coalition.

The most unusual feature of the by-election was that none of the by-election candidates came out in support of the continuation of the coalition. Three candidates entered the race and the Conservative, Reginald Clarry won, with Labour second and the Liberals third.

The timing of the result was crucial. It was declared nine hours before the meeting at the Carlton Club, which was arranged to decide whether the Conservatives would fight the next general election in coalition with the Lloyd George Liberals.

A majority of Conservatives at the Carlton Club meeting felt emboldened to fight the next election as an independent party. Their leader, Austen Chamberlain, a supporter of the coalition, resigned. Andrew Bonar Law then led the Conservatives to victory as an independent party at the 1922 general election.

Events made it seem that the by-election pointed the way for the Conservative Party, but in reality the result was influenced to a large extent by the quality of the candidates and an argument over local alcohol sales. The Conservatives were opposed to licensing restrictions, while the Liberals and Labour were supporters of temperance.

Newport ranks along with the East Fulham by-election of 1933 as a game-changing by-election. At East Fulham the government drew the conclusion that the public was against re-armament, because of the success of the Labour candidate over the Conservative who was a strong supporter of re-armament. But, as with all by-elections, the quality of the candidates had a large bearing on the result.

The same could probably be argued for the Eastleigh by-election earlier this year, which was won by the LibDems, with Ukip second and the Conservatives third - although of course wider conclusions were inevitably drawn at the time. Commentators began to talk less about a LibDem annihilation at the next election and became very excited about the prospects for Ukip. Interestingly, Ukip's second-placed candidate in the by-election, Diana James, did not score very highly in the Ukip internal selection contest for their euro-election candidates list.

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