‘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

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

1924 election defeat for Labour, but not a bad result

Today is the anniversary of the 1924 general election, which brought an end to the first Labour government after less than 10 months in office. This might sound like a disaster for the Labour Party, but it was far from it.

Ramsay MacDonald had used Labour’s first term in power to demonstrate that his party was moderate and responsible.

Although Labour lost the 1924 election to the Conservatives, the Labour Party actually increased their vote from 4.4m in the previous election held less than a year earlier to nearly 5.5m. The party suffered a drop in seats from 191 to 151.

The Conservative Party won the 1924 election with 419 seats and went on to form what was to become the only single party government between the wars which was to serve nearly a full term in office.

The undoubted losers of the 1924 election were the Liberals, who crashed from 159 seats to just 40. The party leader, Asquith, lost his seat in Paisley.

So, what looked like a serious defeat for the Labour Party in 1924 turned out to be a small setback. The Labour Party was back in power again in May 1929, but this time the victory turned into disaster in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

1931 election - not what it seemed at the time

Today is the anniversary of the 1931 election, which took place soon after the formation of the National Government at a time of economic crisis.

The Conservatives won 55.2% of the votes and 473 seats, but their leader, Stanley Baldwin did not become prime minister.

For the Conservatives, what looked like an overwhelming victory, was not an outright win. The party continued to form part of a coalition.

The Liberals entered the election divided into three factions – Liberals who won 33 seats, National Liberals who won 35 seats and Lloyd George’s family group of MPs who held a further 4 seats. The combined Liberal strength amounted to 72, which was an increase from the last election in 1929. Initially the divisions between the Liberals and Liberal Nationals were not very clear and some MPs swapped between the groups, both of which sat on the government side of the Commons.  Only in November 1933 did the divisions become institutionalised when the Liberal group, led by Herbert Samuel crossed the floor to join the opposition.

For the Liberals, what looked like a boost in their numbers in 1931 turned out to be a permanent split and another step backwards.

The Labour Party crashed from being the largest party with 288 seats at the previous election to only 52 seats in 1931.

For the Labour Party, it looked like ruin, less than eight years after their first term in office.

The key to all the strange fluctuations and re-alignments was Ramsay MacDonald. Former Labour prime minister, expelled from his own party for forming the National Government, but kept in office with the support of a few National Labour colleagues, Liberals and Conservatives.
Ramsay MacDonald’s reputation was more or less sealed at that point. Despite being the first, and at that point only, Labour prime minister he was disowned by the Labour Party. The National Government, of which he remained head for another four years, did manage to turn the economy away from the abyss. Fourteen years later, the Labour Party was to win its first overall majority in the 1945 election.

So, the bare results of the 1931 election do not tell anywhere near the whole story. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see its true significance.

Friday, 25 October 2013

East Fulham - a real life and death by-election

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 on 25 October 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.

1951 election - more votes but fewer seats for Attlee

Today is the anniversary of the 1951 general election, which brought to an end Clement Attlee’s brief second term as Labour prime minister.

The election saw the return to office of Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party with 48.0% of the vote – less than Labour’s share of 48.8%. However, the Conservatives won 321 seats to Labour’s 295. (There were only 625 seats in the Commons then, compared to 650 today.)

This was one of two post-war elections when the party with the largest share of the vote did not win the most seats. The other was February 1974, when the Conservatives won more votes but fewer seats than Labour.

In 1951 the Labour and Conservative parties won 96.8% of the vote between them. By contrast in 2010, the figure was 65.1%.

The Liberal Party, under the leadership of Clement Davies, won just six seats and only 2.5% of the vote – its worst result in any general election.

The turnout in the 1951 election was 82.5%, but this represented a drop from the 84.0% figure in 1950. The 2010 turnout figure was also coincidentally 65.1%

The Conservatives won a total of three consecutive elections, under three different leaders - Churchill in 1951, Eden in 1955 and Macmillan in 1959, before being defeated after 13 years in power.

Some rationing was still in force in 1951 and there also seemed to be a shortage of names. The Labour Party was led by a Clement, the Liberal Party was led by a Clement and the wife of the Conservative Party leader was Clementine.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

John Major - it's all about timing

It has been fascinating to contrast the praise for Sir John Major’s interventions yesterday with the derogatory and dismissive way in which he was treated by the media during his premiership.

History is all about timing.

Key to a good legacy is knowing when to stop. Imagine how different the views would be of Anthony Eden if his health had forced him to retire just after winning the 1955 election, or if Winston Churchill had retired before the 1945 election, or if Tony Blair had resigned in 2002 before the Iraq invasion. Imagine Ramsay MacDonald’s reputation if he had retired in 1930, before heading the National Government.

Imagine Margaret Thatcher’s reputation, if she had stepped down after her 1987 victory. It is now clear that someone who won three consecutive general elections cannot have been all bad, but someone who stayed on and was ousted from the premiership by her own MPs cannot have been all good.

Imagine John Major’s legacy today if he had retired just after winning the 1992 election.

As John Major knows better than most, politics is a high-wire act where timing is critical.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Anniversary of the Croydon NW by-election

Today is the anniversary of the Croydon North West by-election of 1981.

The by-election occurred in the early days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance and was expected to be used as a platform for Shirley Williams to return to the Commons. However, the Liberal candidate from the last three elections, Bill Pitt, was chosen, after some wrangling, to be the Alliance’s candidate.

Pitt won the by-election on a swing of 24.2% from the Conservatives, who had previously held the seat. The by-election attracted a total of 12 candidates, who included Nick Griffin in his first contest and an Anti-Common Market candidate who attracted eleven votes.

Pitt had started out as a Conservative, sat as the Liberal MP for Croydon North West from 1981 to 1983 when he lost the seat and then later became a Labour Party supporter.

Shirley Williams won the Crosby by-election the following month.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Anniversary of the first woman to sit in the Lords

Today is the 55th anniversary of the day when the first woman took her seat in the House of Lords.

The first female to sit in the Lords was actually born in Greece, worked in India and was the widow of a Jewish Marquess.

She was born Stella Charnaud, later to be known as the Marchioness of Reading or Stella Isaacs (due to her marriage to Rufus Isaacs, first Marquess of Reading, from 1930 to his death in 1935) and eventually taking her seat in the Lords as Baroness Swanborough on 21 Octobner 1958. Her arrival was made possible under the terms of the 1958 Life Peerages Act. (Hereditary peeresses in their own right had to wait until the passing of the 1963 Peerage Act before they were allowed to take their seats.)

Baroness Swanborough was the founder of the Women’s Voluntary Service and a governor of the BBC.  She died in 1971, but should be remembered for her ground-breaking arrival in the Lords 39 years after the first woman took her seat in the Commons.

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.