‘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, 24 January 2013

Does Cameron's Euro-gamble echo Baldwin's biggest mistakes?

Of his predecessors as Conservative prime minister, in appearance David Cameron most resembles Stanley Baldwin. In temperament there are similarities too – likeable, avuncular, steady, clever but not brilliant.

The similarities go further. Baldwin was MP for the middle-England constituency of Bewdley in Worcestershire and Cameron represents Witney in middle-England Oxfordshire. Both also led a multi-party government.

Yesterday’s European speech by David Cameron revealed a very Baldwinesque willingness to take an unforced political gamble for mainly domestic reasons, which carried serious risks for Britain’s overseas trade. In Baldwin’s case he called an early general election in 1923 over import tariffs.

Baldwin lost the 1923 election, although he did return as prime minister between 1924 and 1929 and served again later as head of the multi-party National Government.

Baldwin’s greatest mistake though came over his interpretation of the East Fulham by-election of 1933, which the Labour candidate won from the Conservatives on an anti-rearmament platform. Baldwin interpreted this to mean that the whole country was against rearming. In reality, the constituents of one London suburb on one day had preferred a younger, more charming Labour candidate over an unpopular local Conservative landlord.

Cameron seems to be showing a similar tendency in his interpretation of Ukip’s recent strong by-election performance as meaning that the whole country wants a radical shake-up of the relationship with Europe. In reality, for most voters, Europe hardly features on their list of concerns.

Will Cameron sabotage his own legacy by combining both Baldwin’s most serious errors into his one giant Euro-gamble?

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Lessons from the 1990s coalition that never was

A packed joint meeting of the Labour History Group and the Liberal Democrat History Group at Portcullis House last night heard a lively discussion between Paddy Ashdown, Pat McFadden and Roger Liddle, refereed by Steve Richards. What did we learn from their debate about the events of the 1990s when Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair nearly formed a coalition?

Lesson 1 Sometimes it is difficult to agree on the past, let alone the future.

Lesson 2 Misfit party leaders are often the most successful (Thatcher, Blair, Ashdown). Although this argument could be turned around to claim that successful leaders are seen as mis-fits, by virtue of their rarity.

Lesson 3 Political parties make leaders more cautious. Tony Blair is regarded across the political spectrum as close to an identikit ideal party leader. He was in power with a large parliamentary majority at a relatively benign time economically and internationally: Yet by most people’s judgement, including his own, he delivered much less than expected. He was restrained from many of his key projects (coalition, euro) by his party.

Lesson 4 Viewing defections as an entirely negative phenomenon may be missing part of their value. Political parties are tribal and we have seen the problems caused by different tribes developing separately (Apartheid, BNP). So a certain amount of inter-breeding is probably a positive thing for politics as a whole. Some interchange of personnel between parties (Roger Liddle, Churchill) is overall a positive thing, increasing understanding and removing some of the barriers to effective joint working.

Lesson 5 Some elections produce mainly winners and others produce mainly losers. In 1997 virtually all Labour and LibDem voters will have been happy with the result. However, in 2010, only the Greens had much cause to celebrate, winning their one seat, but supporters of all three main parties had cause to be disappointed.

Lesson 6 Leaders need to be ready to act very swiftly when they first take power. Momentum is soon lost (Blair, Obama). Labour and the Lib Dems could have entered a coalition at any stage between May and November 1997, but after that the impetus was lost.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Who was the most prolific defector? Not Churchill.

Everyone remembers Winston Churchill’s ‘ratting’ and ‘re-ratting’ between the Conservative Party and the Liberals. But, Churchill was not the most prolific defector. 

This title goes to Edgar Granville, who had five changes of party label to his name. He was first elected to the House of Commons for Eye in Suffolk as a Liberal in 1929. In 1931 he became a Liberal National, but left to sit as an independent during the war, before returning to the Liberals just before the 1945 election. After losing his seat in the Liberals’ worst general election performance in 1951, he joined the Labour Party. Granville was never re-elected as an MP, but he was created a Labour peer. However, his allegiance to the Labour Party did not last and he ended his days as a cross-bencher – and he had a lot of days. He lived to be 100 years old, dying just two days after his centenary.

Edgar Granville was thus the most prolific defector and the longest lived. According to my research, defection was, on average, a career-enhancing move, but not much of a life-enhancing measure. Defectors on average survived to the age of 74, just one year longer than party loyalists.

Monday, 14 January 2013

By-election with 27 Conservative candidates and 48 voters

The British political system changes only slowly and sometimes it gets stuck for decades part-way through a modernisation. This is the case with the House of Lords and it has given rise to a peculiar by-election.

In 1911 the Parliament Act reduced the power of the House of Lords, so that it could, at most, delay legislation for up to two years. In 1949 this delaying power was reduced to one year. Then, in 1999, all but 92 of the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords, leaving appointed life peers in the majority.

The 92 hereditary peers remaining in the Lords comprise 17 office holders and 28 other Crossbenchers,  3 liberal democrats, 2 Labour and 42 Conservatives.

One of the 42 Conservative hereditary peers, Earl Ferrers, recently died. Under the current rules, his replacement is to be chosen in a by-election among the surviving Conservative hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords. There will be 48 voters (Conservative office holders and elected hereditary peers). 27 candidates have come forward (all Conservative hereditary peers not currently sitting in the Lords). The vote will take place using the Alternative Vote system.

So, effectively we have a by-election with 27 Conservative candidates and just 48 voters (all Conservative lords), to elect a new member of an ‘unelected’ chamber, by the Alternative Vote system (which the Conservative Party rejected for the House of Commons). 

With a system as simple and transparent as this, it is amazing that anyone would suggest any further reforms at all!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Michael Howard works – but was it prison or poison?

George Monbiot in the Guardian has written about some very interesting research which appears conclusively to link levels of lead pollution (mainly from paint and vehicle exhausts) with levels of crime.
It could explain why crime levels internationally have generally been falling from their peak in the 1990s, after lead was removed from paint and petrol. The falls seem to have occurred around the world, irrespective of the crime-reduction policies being implemented by individual governments. 

Michael Howard, Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997, famously claimed that ‘prison works’ and that tough sentencing would reduce crime. However, it now looks as though it was not prison, but poison, that was at work. 

Ironically, Howard previously served as Environment Secretary and it may well have been the work of this department which led to the reduction in crime!

The key figure behind the fall in crime, however, may not be an elected politician or a police leader, but Des Wilson who led the successful campaign to remove lead from petrol.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Political Parties on the Psychiatrist’s Couch

Transactional Analysis categorises each party in a discussion as a Parent, Adult or Child. Most productive conversations or negotiations require both parties to operate on an Adult-to-Adult basis, unless one party genuinely is the child of the other.
In politics, parties have to accept each other as equal Adults in order to develop productive relationships. In general, the Liberals/Lib Dems and the Conservatives have managed to do this most of the time. The Conservatives and the Liberals have a long history (over 150 years) of dealing with each other as worthy opponents.

However, the relationship between the Liberals and the Labour Party is more problematic, in part due to their history. Between 1903 and the First World War, the Liberal Party essentially acted as a nurturing Parent to the Labour Party, through the Gladstone-MacDonald Pact which helped Labour achieve a foothold in Parliament. Very quickly after the First World War the Labour Party overtook the squabbling Liberals and assumed a dominant position in Parliament.

So, between 1914 and 1922, positions reversed from the Liberals as the Parent and Labour as the Child to the opposite dynamic. This is not an easy background from which to negotiate.  There have been brief interludes when the Liberals/Lib Dems and Labour have treated each other as equal Adults (the Grimond and Gaitskell era and Ashdown and Blair could be considered to be examples). However, in the aftermath of the 2010 election, Gordon Brown essentially took the position of a strict Parent treating Nick Clegg as a Child, while in many ways Nick Clegg attempted to do exactly the same to Gordon Brown, having to tell Brown that he would have to step aside, as a pre-condition for any LibDem/Labour coalition. (Incidentally, it is debateable whether Brown’s departure was really just a LibDem pre-condition, or if it was also a Labour pre-condition.)

Viewed through the prism of Transactional Analysis, it is no surprise that the LibDem-Labour coalition negotiations failed, but the Conservatives and the LibDems managed to strike a business-like agreement.