‘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, 29 November 2013

‘Dribbling Sheep’ attracts 82.8% Turnout in Hull By-election

When an MP defects from one party to another, it is rare for them to resign their seat and re-contest it at a by-election. The Kingston upon Hull Central by-election in 1926 was caused when the sitting Liberal MP, Joseph Kenworthy, resigned after he defected from the Liberals to Labour.

Kenworthy was a would-be polar explorer turned naval officer, and heir to the Barony of Strabolgi, created in 1318. His parents were Conservatives. Kenworthy was brash and confident and developed a ‘hectoring’ style in Parliament. At the previous election in 1924, he had held the seat against only a Conservative opponent. Kenworthy had therefore been elected with the support of Labour-inclined voters, who had no candidate of their own. He also did not have to displace a prospective Labour candidate to stand in the by-election.

The by-election on 29 November 1926 attracted a great deal of interest, resulting in a turnout of 82.8%. Kenworthy won with an increased majority and 52.9% of the votes. On hearing of the result, John Simon commented:

‘Kenworthy having thus forced his fat body through the hedge you may be sure that a large number of sheep will go dribbling through the gap’.

Two other Liberal MPs did resign their seats on crossing to the Labour field. William Wedgwood Benn resigned his seat at Leith in 1927, but declined to stand again in the same constituency. He was elected as a Labour MP for Aberdeen North the following year. William Jowitt won back his seat in Preston under Labour colours in 1929.

Also among the rare breed of MPs who re-contested their seats on changing party allegiance was Dick Taverne. Taverne resigned his Lincoln seat on leaving the Labour Party in 1972 and was re-elected the following year as an independent Democratic Labour MP (presaging the formation of the SDP in 1981). When 28 Labour MPs and one Conservative defected to join the SDP, only one - Bruce Douglas-Mann - resigned and fought a by-election. He lost. 

None of the more recent defectors from the Conservatives to Labour - Quentin Davies, Alan Howarth, Peter Temple-Morris, Robert Jackson or Shaun Woodward - resigned his seat when he defected, nor did Emma Nicholson or Peter Thurnham who defected from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats.

It is indeed a rare breed of politician who will re-contest their seat when they change parties.

So, a dribbling sheep could attract a lot of interest in Hull - at least in the days before it became a city of culture.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On this day 1990, John Major tops leadership ballot

Today is the anniversary of the second round of the Conservative Party leadership election in 1990. Margaret Thatcher had pulled out of the contest after the first round. John Major and Douglas Hurd joined the contest for the second round with Michael Heseltine.

The result of the second round ballot on 27 November 1990 was John Major 185, Michael Heseltine 131 and Douglas Hurd 56. Although Major had the most votes, he did not have enough for an outright victory, nor did he win as many as Margaret Thatcher had in the first round (204). However, Heseltine and Hurd withdrew from the contest.

In taking over from Margaret Thatcher, John Major faced the usual difficulties of the successor to a towering political figure (as had occurred with Rosebery succeeding Gladstone, Eden succeeding Churchill and would be seen with Brown succeeding Blair).

A key reason for Thatcher’s removal by her parliamentary colleagues had been the belief that she would lead the Conservatives to election defeat. Against expectations, Major managed to win a 21 seat majority in the 1992 election, gained the most votes any leader has for any party before or since and won a personal majority of over 36,000 votes in his Huntingdon constituency. What could possibly go wrong?

While serving briefly as Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming premier, Major had persuaded Thatcher to allow the Pound to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) – the forerunner of the euro. In September 1992, just five months after the election victory, the Pound was forced out of the ERM. In reaction, the Conservative Party became more euro-sceptic and less-disciplined, its economic policy had to be re-written and Major's reputation sank.

Despite vigorous and visible attempts to control his party (including Major’s resorting to resigning and re-contesting the leadership in 1995) the Conservative majority in Parliament leaked away, leaving Major running a minority government as he limped towards defeat in 1997.

Four Conservative MPs died and their seats were won by Liberal Democrats in by-elections (Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough & Saddleworth).  Four others died and their seats were won by other parties (Dudley West, Staffordshire South East and Wirral South by Labour, Perth & Kinross by the SNP).

Two Conservative MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats (Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham). Alan Howarth defected from the Conservatives to Labour and George Gardiner defected to the Referendum Party.

If the four defectors had remained in the party, the Conservatives would still have held a fragile majority in Parliament. Individual political defections usually only attract fleeting attention, but their cumulative effect can be game-changing. 

Defections are not just storms of protest, but can be indicators of political climate change. 

The Liberals had been the party most prone to losing defectors in the first half of the twentieth century, then it was Labour’s turn with the SDP split in the 1980s, but since the 1990s the Conservatives have been the party most vulnerable to defections.

John Major was hailed as an unlikely saviour in 1992, but as a lame duck in 1997. However, his recent political interventions, particularly since his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, have been treated with great interest and respect, from almost all quarters. As the son of a trapeze artist, John Major knows better than most that timing is everything.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Anniversary of Archie Sinclair becoming Liberal Leader

Today is the anniversary of Archie Sinclair becoming leader of the Liberal Party in 1935.

Sinclair fought alongside Winston Churchill in the First World War and in 1922 became MP for Caithness and Sutherland – the most northerly seat in mainland Scotland.
(His grandson, John Thurso, is today the Liberal Democrat MP for the same constituency.)

Archie Sinclair served briefly as Secretary of State for Scotland before the Liberals left the National Government in 1932.

At the 1935 general election Herbert Samuel lost his seat and Sinclair succeeded him as Liberal Party leader. Sinclair supported Churchill’s warnings about appeasement in the late 1930s.

When Churchill formed his wartime coalition in 1940, Sinclair was appointed Secretary of State for Air. He served in this post to the end of the war.

Although Sinclair led the party for 10 years, he only fought one general election as leader, in 1945. He lost his own seat, coming third, but only 61 votes behind the winner. He was succeeded as party leader by Clement Davies.

Holding down a major post in a coalition government, managing the party and defending his own constituency in the far north of Scotland was just one challenge too many for Sinclair. Nick Clegg must be relieved that his own constituency is in Sheffield.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Conservative MP Nick Boles calls for a new National Liberal Party

Conservative MP Nick Boles has called for the setting up of a new National Liberal Party, which would put up candidates jointly with the Conservative Party.

The term National Liberal has been used before. Followers of Lloyd George stood in the 1922 general election as National Liberals, without Conservative opposition. This first Liberal National Party only lasted until the following year, when the Liberal Nationals and the Liberals reunited before the 1923 election.

The term re-emerged in the 1940s when the Liberal Nationals swapped to being the National Liberals. The Liberal Nationals were a group which started to break away from the Liberal Party in 1931 after the formation of the National Government. By 1933 the Liberals and the Liberal Nationals were on opposite sides of the Commons. The Liberal Nationals became closer and closer to the Conservatives, agreeing an electoral pact in 1947 and eventually being subsumed fully into the Conservative Party in 1968.

I suspect that Nick Boles, who read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at university, is fully aware of the history. But I think that he may be choosing to read the history backwards. He is probably starting from the tempting thought (for the Conservatives) of being allied with, and perhaps later taking over, this new party.

However, in the previous examples the Liberal Nationals had split from the Liberals. In this case, Nick Boles’s idea could end up creating a break-away group from the Conservatives – and who knows where they could end up?

Friday, 15 November 2013

1922 and all that

Today is the anniversary of the 1922 general election, in which the Labour Party overtook the Liberals for the first time. The election was held after the Conservative Party had voted at the Carlton Club meeting to end their coalition with the Lloyd George Liberals.

The Liberal Party was split between the supporters of Lloyd George and Asquith, but the combined wings of the party only managed to secure 116 seats in the 1922 election, to Labour’s 142. The Conservatives emerged as the winners with 345 seats.

The Liberal split was eventually healed before the next election, which took place only just over a year later in December 1923. Although the re-united Liberals recovered to 159 seats in 1923, Labour continued to make gains, staying ahead with a total of 191. The outcome of the 1923 election was the first ever Labour government.

Historians still debate the timing and causes of the Liberals’ decline. George Dangerfield argued that the decline had started in Edwardian times, later historians such as Trevor Wilson and David Dutton put the blame on the First World War. Michael Hart agreed with Asquith that it was the 1918 coupon election which caused the damage. My own research into political defections shows that Liberal MPs themselves still generally had confidence in their party’s recovery until after the 1918 election. Only two former Liberal MPs stood as Labour candidates in 1918. However, by the time of the 1922 election a serious exodus of Liberal defectors had begun and the reunification of the party in 1923 was too late to repair much of the damage.

The Labour Party had also been seriously split during the war, but had begun to re-unite and organise effectively in the constituencies before the 1918 election. This speedier regrouping by the Labour Party gave them the crucial advantage over the Liberals.

Incidentally, the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee of backbenchers was only formed in 1923.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Anniversary of 1935 general election

Today is the anniversary of the 1935 general election, the second held since the formation of the National Government in 1931.

The National Government had become more and more Conservative-dominated during the 1931-35 Parliament. Conservative Stanley Baldwin had taken over the premiership from Ramsay MacDonald before the 1935 election. MacDonald had been thrown out of the Labour Party in 1931 after he joined the National Government and had continued as a National Labour MP. Herbert Samuel’s Liberals had left the government and crossed the floor to the opposition benches during the parliament.

The 1935 election reinforced the Conservative domination of the National Government. Although the Conservatives dropped from 473 to 387 MPs, their Liberal National allies, now separate from the Liberal Party, also dropped from 35 seats to 33 and the National Labour representation went down from 13 seats to just 8, with their leader, Ramsay MacDonald losing his seat. The National Government still commanded a comfortable overall majority.

The Liberal Party, now in opposition, was reduced from 33 MPs to 20 and their leader, Samuel lost his seat. The Communist Party won one seat.

An important underlying feature of the 1935 election was the recovery of the Labour Party, which won 154 seats – much improved from the 1931 total of only 52. Many believed that the Labour Party had been ruined in 1931. Only George Lansbury from the 1929-31 Labour cabinet had held his seat as a Labour MP in 1931.

However, three of Lansbury’s colleagues who had been defeated in 1931, had returned to the Commons at by-elections during the 1931-35 Parliament. Arthur Greenwood had returned at a by-election in 1932 and held his seat in 1935. Arthur Henderson had returned at a by-election in 1933 at Clay Cross – his fourth comeback at a by-election and his fifth different seat. However, Henderson had died shortly before the 1935 election. Christopher Addison had lost his seat at Swindon in 1931, regained it in 1934, but lost it again in 1935.

Five members of the 1931 cabinet who had lost their seats in 1931, regained them at the 1935 general election - Albert Alexander, Bertie Lees-Smith, Herbert Morrison, Tom Johnston and John Clynes. The last member of the 1929-31 Labour cabinet to make a return to the Commons was William Wedgwood Benn. He had lost his seat in 1931 and was defeated again in 1935, but he eventually returned at a by-election in 1937.

Only four MPs from the 1929-31 Labour cabinet did not eventually return to the Commons. William Graham, defeated in 1931, died in 1932 at the age of only 44. William Adamson, defeated in 1931, was beaten by a Communist on his attempt to return in 1935 and died in 1936. Tom Shaw did not return to the Commons after his defeat in 1931, but went back to his former role as Secretary of the International Federation of Textile Workers. Margaret Bondfield, the first female cabinet minister, was defeated in 1931 and again in 1935 and she was never to return to the Commons.

So, although the headline result of the 1935 election was another victory for the National Government, the more significant underlying story was the resilience of the Labour Party and its significant step towards re-emergence as a party of government.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Anniversary of Death of First Labour Prime Minister

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1937 of Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first prime minister, but today a largely forgotten figure.

He did more than anyone to create the Labour Party – the only new party in over a hundred years to form a government.

In the first Labour government, MacDonald served as Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. This government did not have a majority in the Commons and lasted only nine months during 1924. However, it served to show that the Labour Party would be moderate and responsible in power and had supplanted the Liberals as the alternative party of government to the Conservatives.

Labour regained power in 1929, but still without an overall Commons majority. Today this might seem to have been a good election to have lost. The election was at the end of May and in October the Wall Street crash happened.

Faced with falling government tax revenues, increasing bills for unemployment benefits and a mistaken belief that borrowing or leaving the Gold Standard would be a disaster, the Labour cabinet split in 1931. A majority were willing to cut unemployment benefits by 10%, but a significant minority refused.

The Labour government resigned, but MacDonald returned as Prime Minister of a National Government, which he headed until 1935. He was thrown out of the Labour Party as is still regarded by many as a traitor.

The key piece of information which many overlook about the situation in 1931 was that there was deflation. Prices had fallen by 11.5% since 1929. A cut in unemployment benefits of 10% would still have left their real value higher than they were in 1929.