‘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

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Is Eastleigh as important as East Fulham?

Some by-elections go down in history as crucial turning points, such as Newport in 1922 which is credited with ending the Lloyd George coalition, or Orpington in 1962, regarded as a breakthrough in the Liberal recovery.

However, few by-elections can really be regarded as life or death events. But East Fulham in 1933 really did end up costing lives.

The outcome of the East Fulham by-election was that Labour (in serious disarray after the formation of the National Government) won a seat from the Conservatives.

What actually happened was that 4,840 more voters in a southwest London suburb on one day in October 1933 preferred a younger more dynamic Labour candidate to an older rather unpopular Conservative local landlord. Among the policies debated (which included much argument over housing) was the issue of rearmament – opposed by the Labour candidate and supported by the Conservative. Not surprisingly, in a part of London with no arms manufacturing or shipbuilding, but within reach of enemy bombers, the voters may have felt that they had little to gain from rearmament and possibly much to lose from a war.

Had the by-election taken place in a constituency with high unemployment and an arms factory, the result might have been different. Had the Conservative candidate been young and dynamic and the Labour candidate an unpopular local landlord, the result might have been different.

Anyway, the East Fulham result was regurgitated by commentators and politicians for years afterwards to signify Britain’s reluctance to rearm. Worse than the over-interpretation of the meaning, was that the date and the result were subsequently mis-quoted in several explanations. Stanley Baldwin, speaking as prime minister in 1936, used the East Fulham result (to which, for some reason, he added 2,160 votes to the Conservatives’ margin of defeat) to explain his slow conversion to rearmament. By contributing (even if only very slightly) to Britain’s slowness to rearm, East Fulham did cost lives.

Sometimes by-election voters are told that they are taking part in a crucial contest, only for the result to be forgotten. On other occasions, such as East Fulham, the voters are largely left alone to make up their minds on local as well as national issues, only to find out afterwards that they have changed the course of history.

In this context, Eastleigh is probably not as important as East Fulham.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Bermondsey by-election - Was it about Sex or Money?

On the 30th anniversary of the Bermondsey by-election there is justifiably much focus on two of the candidates – Simon Hughes, who won the seat for the Liberals and who has remained the MP ever since, and Peter Tatchell, the defeated Labour candidate who has since forged a highly effective career in equality campaigning (including his attempted arrest of Robert Mugabe).

Much of the comment about the by-election focuses on gay rights, an issue which has seen dramatic progress since. However there were other issues at stake in Bermondsey in 1983 and one of these seems to have progressed very little, or even gone into reverse.

At the time of the by-election Peter Tatchell was seen as a local candidate with first-hand experience of the local housing conditions. He lived in a council flat in the constituency. There were comments from some voters that they desperately wanted to move to better conditions and that they would not support a candidate who had failed to move on himself.

Aspiration still plays a major part in politics. People often approve of tax rises for those much richer than themselves, but are against increases for those a few notches higher up the income scale – they aspire to reach that income level themselves one day.

While candidates who have achieved no more than the local electorate tend not to appeal, those who have achieved too much wealth are equally distrusted. There are on-going negative comments about the number of millionaires in the cabinet. However, anyone reaching the cabinet will be earning £130,000 a year. They will usually have been an MP for a decade or more, earning £65,000 a year. To have become an MP in the first place they will have gone through a selection process within their own party (to be selected thay are likely to have an impressive CV) and then they will have won a seat. This filtering process almost guarantees that cabinet ministers will be quite wealthy and, with the value of London properties taken into account, it is not surprising that many (from all parties) will be millionaires.

The moral of this seems to be that successful candidates are increasingly drawn from the ranks of the fairly wealthy. Gone are the days when a miner or a top industrialist would be welcomed into Parliament. Once MPs were paid from 1911, the aim was to attract a wide range of candidates, regardless of wealth. However, these days, it seems that only the slightly above average are welcome.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Attlee’s forgotten second term

The 1940s was arguably the one decade in British political history when governments achieved what they set out to do. 1940 saw Chamberlain replaced by Churchill, who was able to harness the best minds of the Conservatives, Liberals and Labour in an all-party coalition, which won the war. The wartime coalition also made extensive plans for post-war reconstruction and published the Beveridge Report.

In 1945 Clement Attlee led the Labour Party to a landslide victory. His 1945-50 government has many long-lasting achievements to its name, including the National Health Service, National Parks, Town and Country Planning, Indian Independence and the New Towns.

Few would argue that Attlee’s achievements in the 1940s were not dramatic and enduring. What is less well-remembered is that Attlee also won the election in 1950. Today is the anniversary of that election. Labour won 315 seats, the Conservatives 298 and the Liberals 9 of the remaining 12. It was the first election with one person-one vote, as the university seats and the business premises votes had been abolished.

However, despite the narrow victory, the turn of the decade marked the end of major reforms. Attlee’s second administration limped on for only 20 relatively undistinguished months before succumbing at the election in 1951, which saw Churchill’s first election victory.

Attlee is rightly remembered for his highly-regarded 1945-50 government, but it is largely forgotten that he did win a second election - on this day in 1950. His second victory added very little to his reputation, but it meant that Attlee actually won two elections before Churchill won any – and Churchill only ever won one.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

LibDem, Labour and Conservative brains work differently

Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams has posted some fascinating research from the US (published in the journal PLOS ONE), showing that there are differences in brain function between people inclined to vote Republican compared to those inclined to vote Democrat. The two groups tend to think about risk differently.

Republicans thinking about risk tended to focus instinctively on safety and demonstrated more activity in the parts of the brain associated with the ‘fight or flight response’. Democrats tended to show more activity in the parts of the brain which process ideas about self and social awareness.

Translating this into the British context, it certainly seems to fit in with the view that Conservatives feel that they are Conservative by instinct; that Liberal Democrats are Liberal because of the attraction of certain ideas and that Labour supporters are motivated by feeling a strong sense of tribal belonging with others. The Labour Party is arguably the middle party of the three, sharing many of the concerns over safety with Conservatives, but being willing to embrace risky change.

The patriotic instincts of the Conservative Party in the First World War, compared to the extensive debate among Liberals over the ethics of conscription, fit this pattern of thought. The election poster showing Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin with the caption ‘Safety First’ seems to encapsulate the party ethos, as does the focus on property ownership and policing.

These different thought patterns could to some extent account for the revival of the Liberal Party in the 1960s, as society embraced new ideas, leaving the Conservatives uncomfortable, but the Liberals more in tune with the changes.

The reaction of the Labour Party in closing ranks and throwing Ramsay MacDonald out of the party in 1931 after the formation of the National Government demonstrated a ruthless group survival instinct in the face of an existential threat. However, in calmer times the party has been willing to introduce innovative new ideas, such as devolution and the minimum wage, despite the risks involved.

Perhaps in future canvassers will be able to carry a portable brain scanner to identify their potential supporters!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Unluckiest Day for Unluckiest Man in British politics

Today is the anniversary of one of the unluckiest days for the politician dubbed ‘the unluckiest man in British politics’ – Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman.
Journalist and social reformer, Charles Masterman contested a by-election in Dulwich as the Liberal candidate in 1903, but lost. In the 1906 Liberal landslide he was elected for West Ham North and was re-elected in January 1910. At this stage his career was thriving. He published his well-known book The Condition of England and worked closely with Churchill and Lloyd George on the People's Budget, but in the general election in December 1910, his election was declared void.

Masterman was returned to parliament at a by-election in 1911, this time at Bethnal Green South West. In 1914 he was appointed to the Cabinet. This may not sound too unlucky, but under the rules at the time, newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and re-contest it. Masterman lost the resulting by-election on this day in 1914. He tried again in a by-election at Ipswich, but again failed and had to resign from the cabinet.

Masterman eventually returned to the House of Commons in the 1923 general election, as MP for Manchester Rusholme, but he again lost his seat in the 1924 general election.

After this his health declined rapidly, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse. He died in 1927.

So 19 February 1914 stands as one of the unluckiest days in the career of the very talented, but very unlucky Charles Masterman.