‘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

Sunday, 31 March 2013

21 years from 15% of the vote to first MP

In the 1989 European elections the Green Party won 15% of the vote (a similar level to Ukip’s current showing in opinion polls). 21 years later the Greens won their first seat at Westminster.

Most Ukip supporters will feel very frustrated if their current level of support takes two decades to translate into a single MP. Were the Greens very slow to capitalise on their support, or are Ukip being unrealistically impatient?

British politics seems to be characterised by inertia. The three main political parties are all over a hundred years old and between them they have formed all the governments of the last century. But, how secure is their hold on the future?

Anyone who has watched Sarah Beeny’s television programme ‘Help my house is falling down’ will have seen that buildings can remain standing for decades with huge cracks, foundations undermined by tree roots and considerable rot, but that once a tipping point is reached, a catastrophic collapse can happen. One or more of the major political parties could be heading for a collapse, as their foundations of financial support, their roots into local communities and their voter loyalty rot away and policy cracks appear. 

The 1993 Canadian election gave us an example of this happening, with the Progressive Conservative Party collapsing from 156 seats to just 2. In Britain, the nearest we have seen was the Labour Party falling from 288 seats to 52 in 1931 and the Liberals' fall from 159 MPs to just 40 in 1924.

The problem for any new challenger, as has been clear with the case of the SDP, the Greens and now with Ukip is that it takes a very long time to build up a secure financial foundation to invest year after year in campaigns and support staff, to put down deep local roots for canvassing and to ensure that the policy foundations are strong enough to withstand the odd minor earthquake of media attack.

History (together with surveying) would suggest that the current three-party system is in danger of eventual collapse – not now, probably not in 2015, but highly likely at some point. The party or parties who could capitalise on this will probably be those who have patiently been putting down secure foundations and playing the long game.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Torrington by-election victor walked 500 miles

Today is the anniversary of the Torrington by-election of 1958. It was the first post-war Liberal by-election victory and the first time the party had captured a new seat at a by-election since 1929.

The by-election occurred when the Liberal Party was at its lowest ever representation in the House of Commons, with just five MPs. At the previous general election in 1955, the Liberals had won six seats, but one of the MPs, Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris, died in 1956 and the party lost the at seat at Carmarthen in the resulting by-election.

Torrington was won by Mark Bonham Carter, Asquith’s grandson and brother-in-law of party leader, Jo Grimond. Bonham Carter would have been well-prepared for the campaign as he had (according to the Dictionary of Liberal Biography) walked 500 miles after he escaped from a prison camp in Italy during the war. Talk about sore feet - campaigners today just don’t realise how easy life is!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

It's not 'the economy, stupid' - it's the future

The major political parties are worried that the voters will blame them for the state of the economy at the next election. But with opinion polls showing that voters share the blame between the last Labour government, the current coalition and the problems of the world economy, there is little to be gained for any party in trying to revisit the past and apportion blame to their opponents. Why?

Voters tend not to be interested in the past (if they even know about it). They are more interested in who can offer the best future. There are plenty of examples of voters ignoring the past (good or bad) and voting for what they believe will be the best option for the future.

Churchill lost the 1945 election, having led the country to victory in the war. The Conservatives won the general election which followed the Suez Crisis. In 1990 respected Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Ian Gow, was killed by an IRA bomb, but the Conservatives lost the resulting by-election. John Major won the first election after Margaret Thatcher’s departure, in a recession, but with the largest vote ever achieved by any party. Tony Blair won the general election after the Iraq invasion. Labour held Luton South in the 2010 general election, even though the former Labour MP, Margaret Moran, was embroiled in the expenses scandal (the swing to the Conservatives was actually lower than the national average). The LibDems have just won the Eastleigh by-election, caused by the criminal conviction and resignation of their former MP.

Voters look much more to the future than to the past. Votes are only cast at the election, not in the years in between. If history influences voters’ opinions at the election, it is mainly because they think that the past may be a guide to the future – just like a job application.

In politics, bygones usually are bygones. It’s not the ‘economy, stupid’ - it’s the future. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Roy Jenkins – Brilliant, but not quite deadly enough

25 March is the anniversary of the Glasgow Hillhead by-election of 1982, won by Roy Jenkins standing as the SDP candidate. This was to be one of four seats captured by the SDP at by-elections, along with Crosby (won by Shirley Williams in 1981), Portsmouth South (won by Mike Hancock in 1984 and now the sitting LibDem MP) and Greenwich (won by Rosie Barnes in 1987).

Hillhead had previously been held by the Conservatives, whose by-election candidate, Gerry Malone was to suffer several election embarrassments. Having failed at Hillhead, Malone eventually entered parliament at his fourth attempt, holding Aberdeen South for the Conservatives in 1983. He lost the seat in 1987. He then transferred to the safe Conservative seat of Winchester in 1992, but lost this seat in 1997, to Liberal Democrat Mark Oaten by a margin of just two votes. Malone challenged the result in court. The court ordered a rerun of the election, but Oaten won with a resounding majority of 21,566 votes, thus finally ending the parliamentary career of Malone.

Roy Jenkins retained Hillhead in the 1983 general election, before being ousted in 1987 by George Galloway, now Respect MP for Bradford West, but then standing for Labour.

In a wide-ranging and widely-admired career, Jenkins held the positions of President of the European Commission, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the SDP.

Asked why he never quite made it to the very top of politics, Jenkins replied that he was not quite ‘deadly enough’. He was more than deadly enough for Gerry Malone in the Hillhead by-election on this day in 1982.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Anniversary of death of Liberal leader in darkest years

Today is the anniversary of the death of Clement Davies in 1962. Clem was the leader of the Liberal Party through its darkest years from 1945 to 1956. He assumed the leadership after his predecessor, Archie Sinclair lost his seat in the 1945 election, along with the chief whip, Percy Harris and the party's leading thinker, William Beveridge. Sinclair had to fulfill the roles of secretary of state for air in the wartime coalition, while leading the party and trying to hold on to his remote seat in Caithness and Sutherland in the far north of the Scottish mainland. Sinclair lost his seat, coming third, but only 61 votes behind the winner.

Clem Davies never had the full confidence of some of his parliamentary colleagues, as he had become a Liberal National in 1931 and only rejoined the Liberals during the war. Davies had, however, played a significant behind the scenes role in Chamberlain's replacement by Churchill after the Norway Debate in May 1940.

Clement Davies had a troubled personal life. He was an alcoholic and three of his four childern had died in unrelated incidents, but all at the age of 24. The eldest son died in his office from an epileptic fit, his daughter was electrocuted by a high voltage overhead wire (deemed at the inquest to have been suicide) and the second son died in a military training accident on Salisbury Plain during the war. Only his youngest son, Stanley, survived into old age and was still alive when I researched his father's biography.

Clem worried that he would be the party's 'Omega' - the last of the line. He once described his position as Liberal leader as being one of almost 'supine weakness'. Nevertheless he held the party together for eleven disspiriting years, turning down Churchill's offer of a coalition and a cabinet seat for himeself after the 1951 election.

In 1954 the Liberals came close to victory in the Inverness by-election and party membership started to recover. In 1956 Jo Grimond took over the leadership and was able to inject new dynamism into the party, which doubled its number of MPs to 12.

Clement Davies survived to the age of 78 and was still MP for Montgomeryshire at the time of his death. But, as Clem himself put it, the party 'refused to die'.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

By-election Victories Ranked by Importance

Since 1945 the Liberals/LibDems have won 30 by-elections. (This includes five which were defences of seats already held – Montgomeryshire, Truro, Cheadle, Winchester and Eastleigh, but excludes SDP victories.) Which was the most important victory?

Three possible objective measures of importance could be analysed:

1) Swing - the percentage change in votes cast at the by-election

2) Durability - the number of years the seat was subsequently continuously held

3) Political importance of the winner - the positions held by the winning candidate
The top 3 victories on each of these measures would be:


Top: Bermondsey 1983 (44.2%), Second: Christchurch 1993 (35.4%), Third: Sutton and Cheam 1972 (32.6%)

Durability of Victory:

Top: Roxburgh 1965 (48 years), Second: Berwick 1973 (40 years), Third: Bermondsey 1983 (30 years)

Importance of Winner:

Top: Roxburgh (David Steel, party leader), Second: Bermondsey (Simon Hughes, deputy party leader, party president), Third: Berwick-upon-Tweed (Alan Beith, party deputy leader)

Combining these measures would put Roxburgh (1965) and Bermondsey (1983) joint most important, followed by Berwick (1973) then Christchurch (1993).

However, these figures only tell part of the story. Another important, but subjective, way of evaluating the victories would be the extent to which the result changed the prevailing political narrative - Did commentators see it as a turning point? Did other parties behave differently afterwards? Did it produce a sustained upward trend in Liberal/LibDem support?

This is one of the reasons that political history is so fascinating - although the events are in the past, the estimation of the events in the present can change (historiography to use the jargon). Historians tend to look back at Torrington and Orpington as the key victories. Torrington was the first of the Liberal post-war victories, but it was only held for one year, until the Conservatives won the 1959 election and regained the seat. Orpington gave a severe jolt to the Conservative Party’s confidence about winning the next election and demonstrated that the Liberals were much more resilient than the other parties believed. The Conservatives were defeated in the 1964 election and Eric Lubbock held on to Orpington. Eastleigh (2103) may well come to symbolise a similar change in the political narrative.

The main contender to add to this list (as supported by Michael Crick and Stephen Williams MP) is Eastbourne (1990). This was a watershed victory under unusual circumstances. At the tail end of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, her former close confidant and Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Ian Gow, was killed by an IRA bomb. Paddy Ashdown as leader of the (then new and struggling) Liberal Democrats initially decided that it would be wrong and undignified to contest the by-election. He was persuaded to change his mind and David Bellotti won the seat for the LibDems with a majoirty of 4,500. The result fed into the narrative of Margaret Thatcher's decline and convinced commentators that the LibDem 'parrot (of Monty Python fame) had twitched'.

Eastleigh (2013) may yet turn out to be more of a squawk than just a twitch. We will have to keep our eyes, ears and minds open on that one for the time being.

Provisionally then, (historiography in mind) the overall most important by-election victories can be considered to be (not necessarily in this order) Orpington, Roxburgh, Bermondsey and Eastbourne, with the possible future addition of Eastleigh (2013). Others may want to disagree - please feel free. There is often not just one right conclusion to be drawn from history (although there have been many wrong ones).

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Leveson - a Constitutional Battle to rival 1910

In 1910 a fierce constitutional battle raged between elected MPs versus a powerful unelected body. The Liberals and the Labour Party lined up against the Conservatives, who were supported by the unelected power. On Monday a fierce battle will set the terms of engagement in British politics for decades to come, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour again siding against the Conservatives.

In 1910 the unelected power was the House of Lords, which had blocked Lloyd George’s People’s budget. The House of Lords survived, but its power was curtailed and the House of Commons has reigned supreme ever since.

This time the issue is the power of the press. On Monday will the House of Commons resolve to assert itself over the press?

Back in 1991, when the Calcutt Committee (Leveson’s predecessor) was set up, Conservative cabinet minister David Mellor told the popular press that they were drinking in the last-chance saloon. Will the Leveson proposals be implemented in full as proposed by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, or will the press be allowed to drink in the last-plus-one-chance saloon?

In 1910 the battle was characterised as Peers v People. In 2013 it is amusing to note that one of the former newspaper editors is Piers and one of the newspapers is the People.

Friday, 15 March 2013

50 years in Parliament today for Lord Avebury

The Orpington by-election of March 1962 is famous as Liberal victory in what was seen as a safe Conservative suburban seat. Eric Lubbock, the Liberal candidate took the party from third place to first and overturned a Tory majority of over 14,000. He held the seat at the following two general elections, before the Conservatives won the seat back in 1970.

However, Eric Lubbock was not out of Parliament for long, as he inherited a peerage in 1971 and returned to the Lords as Baron Avebury. Lord Avebury is still alive and still in the Lords. He is now one of the Liberal Democrats’ elected hereditary peers.

In an interesting example of history being written and rewritten, there have been several reports from normally authoritative sources, including the BBC, that today (15 March) is the anniversary of the Orpington by-election. It was actually on 14 March 1962 – a moving day in more senses than one.

Sunday 17 March 2013 is another significant anniversary for Eric Avebury. It marks his fifty years in Parliament - in the Commons from 14 March 1962 to 18 June 1970 and in the Lords from 21 June 1971 to today - exactly 50 years in total.

Monday, 11 March 2013

From Protest to Government - again.

Nick Clegg has talked of the LibDems having changed from being a party of protest to a party of government? What does this mean?

British political parties can be divided into three categories: parties of government, parliamentary protest parties and non-parliamentary protest parties (without seats at Westminster).

Between 1915 and 1945 there were usually at least three potential parties of government, any of which could have formed a government or collaborated in one. Between 1945 and 2010 there were only two  – Labour and Conservative. There is no fixed number of parties of government and the increasing likelihood of further coalitions means that the number could grow from the current three – Labour, Conservative and LibDems.

In the 1950s the Liberal Party relegated itself from being a party of government to a parliamentary protest party. It regrouped and eventually, sixty-five years later, has gone through a baptism of fire to once again become a party of government, with all that it entails. 

Arguably, the LibDems have performed well in many respects where they were expected to fail, but have fallen short in areas which might have previously been seen as strengths. The cohesion of the party, loyalty to the leader, preparedness to take unpopular decisions, quality of ministers, steadiness in the face of poor opinion polling figures and the deftness of the whips’ operation have all withstood the test effectively. Personal morals and policy-making are arguably the areas which have let the party down. Some would argue that the nice harmless idealistic thoughtful, but unmanageable, LibDems of protest have morphed into the resilient, united, tough, but rather directionless and somewhat immoral party of government.

Not all parties could make this transformation, or would want to. The Greens transformed themselves into a parliamentary party of protest at the last election and could potentially have become a party of government. Perhaps rightly, they decided that the latter would have been a step too far. The party is struggling to find its voice. Respect has rapidly emerged into being a parliamentary protest party – a role to which its one MP, George Galloway, is well suited.

Ukip is a non-parliamentary party of protest at the moment, and is arguably being successful at it, having persuaded the Conservatives to change course over Europe. Another, the BNP, affected the Labour Party’s stance on immigration. While the BNP is very unlikely to progress under the first past the post electoral system, Ukip might, although the electoral barriers are high. The party could conceivably gain an evenly-spread 15% of the vote at the next election, but win no seats. The questions for Ukip are its over willingness and ability to take the necessary steps to become a parliamentary protest party.

The SDP and the New Party in the 1930s were born with the intention of be parties of government, but most new parties start off as non-parliamentary protest parties and many get no further. The Labour Party is the key example of a party which has gone through all three phases and remains a party of government. In many ways, Labour’s 1924 is the LibDems’ 2010, except that the Liberals have been here before.