‘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, 28 February 2014

Eastleigh – a million miles from Carmarthen

Since the formation of the Liberal Democrats in 1988, the party has never lost a seat at a by-election. Before 1988 the Liberals also actually had a record of holding seats in all by-elections since 1934 - with just one exception - the Carmarthen by-election held on this day in 1957.

The Liberals, with a new inexperienced party leader, Jo Grimond, had to defend Carmarthen after the death of MP Rhys Hopkin Morris. Grimond dithered over supporting the views of the Liberal candidate, John Morgan Davies, on Suez and undermined an already-lacklustre Liberal campaign.

But, the biggest problem which the Liberals faced at that by-election was that the Labour candidate was Megan Lloyd George, daughter of former Liberal prime minster David and herself a former Liberal MP and deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Megan had defected to the Labour Party in 1955. She won the by-election for Labour. The Liberal Party was reduced to its lowest total of just five MPs. (However, Jo Grimond managed to bring the party’s total back to six by capturing Torrington the following year.)

Carmarthen had more than its fair share of deaths, defections and by-elections - in 1924, 1928, 1941, 1957 and again in 1966, after Megan Lloyd George died. It was represented by MPs of four different parties between 1926 and 1966.

So, when the Eastleigh by-election was called for 28 February 2013, there was a lot at stake for the LibDems. The ominous date acted as a reminder of the one failure in the last 79 years and the LibDems were subjected to regular forecasts in the media of impending doom and plunder of their seats by the Conservatives at the next general election. To make the context more tricky, the by-election was caused by the resignation of LibDem cabinet minister, Chris Huhne, after admitting swapping speeding points with his former wife – a criminal offence, for which both were later imprisoned.

The Conservatives had been convinced that they would be able to take the seat from their second place at the 2010 election. Ukip adopted a strong candidate in Diane James and Labour chose John O’Farrell as a high profile candidate.

In the end, Lib Dem candidate, Mike Thornton, won with 13,342 votes, Ukip came second with 11,571. The Conservative candidate, Maria Hutchings, who had declared the contest ‘a two-horse race’, came third with 10,559 votes and John O’Farrell trailed in fourth with 4,088.

The prevailing narrative in the media has since changed from a prospective LibDem annihilation at the next election and has instead focused on the threat posed by Ukip to all the other parties and the absence of a Labour recovery in southern England.

Eastleigh turned out to be a million miles from Carmarthen.

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