‘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

How significant was Eastleigh?

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.) Which was the most important victory?

Four possible 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

4) Changing the political narrative - the political and media reaction to the victory.

The top 3 victories on each measure 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 (49 years), Second: Berwick 1973 (41 years), Third: Bermondsey 1983 (31 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)

Changing the political narrative:

This last category is rather subjective, but both Orpington and Eastleigh gave a severe jolt to the Conservative Party’s confidence about winning the next election and both demonstrated that the Liberals/LibDems are more resilient than many people believed. Torrington was the first of the Liberal post-war victories, but the seat was only held for one year, until the Conservatives won the 1959 election and regained the seat. Eastbourne in 1990 came at a time when the LibDems were struggling. It gave a significant boost to party morale and credibility and hastened the demise of Margaret Thatcher.

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.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Coalition v Minority Government. Which is Better?

There is some talk of a minority government after 2015. What does history tell us about the track records of minority governments, compared to coalitions?

Britain has had several minority governments:

The first Labour government in 1924

The second Labour government 1929-31

Harold Wilson’s government between elections of February and October 1974

The end of Jim Callaghan’s government leading up to 1979

The end of John Major’s government in 1997

The country has also had coalitions during this time:

The National Governments of 1931 to 1940

Churchill’s wartime coalition 1940 to 1945

The current Conservative/LibDem coalition since 2010.

Whatever your political allegiance, it is hard to argue that the track records of the minority governments is better than that of the coalitions.

In terms of stability, the longevity of the coalition governments far exceeds that of the minority governments.

We can all make our choice of how to interpret the history, but in 2015 how many voters would opt for a minority government over a coalition, based on the histories of the two?

It is interesting that the voices in favour of a minority govenment come from the right of the Conservative Party and the left of Labour. A minority government would almost certainly give the more extreme elements a bigger influence on their party. Sir John Major's experience after his majority disappeared at the end of his premiership can testify to this.

Coaltion more likely as result of Cameron veto?

David Cameron has let it be known (but not actually said) that he wants to rule out another coalition after the next election.

His reasoning is almost entirely to do with the internal dynamics of his own party and hardly anything to do with the current coalition government.

What might be the consequences? From YouGov’s research, we already know that around 50% of the electorate is likely to change from what they did at the last election. The electorate is volatile, with strong cross-currents of support moving in different directions.

The background to the next election is going to be quite different from 2010.
We now have experience of coalition government at Westminster for the first time since 1945. The prevailing view before 2010 that a coalition would be ‘weak’ or ‘unstable’ has been proved wrong. Many voters may not like the coalition, but few could argue that its faults have been its weakness or instability. The coalition has meant that a third party has ministerial experience at Westminster. Labour and the Conservatives clearly do not have a monopoly on ministerial competence. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have reinforced this point. We will have the Green Party defending a toe-hold at Westminster. We may have a post-referendum SNP competing for seats in Scotland, or even a Scotland which has voted to remove itself from Westminster politics. We have a significant amount of support in opinion polls for Ukip.

So what are the likely dynamics? Professor David Butler has estimated that there is around a 50% chance of a hung parliament after the next election. If neither Labour nor the Conservatives wins an overall majority, it would be possible for one of these parties to run a minority government. Possible, but not easy. There would be a constant need for deals with other parties. As we saw with Jim Callaghan’s government before the Winter of Discontent, or John Major’s struggle with his back-benchers in the lead up to 1997, this may not be a pretty sight.

In 2015, loyal Conservative voters may well stay loyal – but there are not enough of them to give the party an overall majority. Some voters inclined to support Ukip might return to supporting the Conservative Party if they knew that it would only form a single-party government.

But, when it comes to making decisions in individual constituencies, many voters may decide that they would rather vote tactically for Labour or the Liberal Democrats to avoid having a purely-Conservative (and possibly minority) government. A Labour government or a Labour-LibDem coalition may prove a more attractive option to a significant number of voters, and possibly enough to change the outcome.

David Cameron’s anti-coalition views have probably made another coalition more likely – a Labour/Lib Dem coalition.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Anniversary of Bermondsey by-election

Today is the anniversary of the Bermondsey by-election of 1983. On a record swing of 44.2%, the Liberals won the formerly-safe Labour seat.

There was 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 focused 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 £66,000 a year. To have become an MP in the first place they will have gone through a selection process within their own party and they will have won a seat. They are highly likely to have had a previous well-paid job. 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.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Liberals' 1950 Dilemma over Broad or Narrow Front

Today is the anniversary of the 1950 general election. The Liberals, under the leadership of Clement Davies, were faced with a dilemma over whether to fight on a broad or narrow front.

If the party put up candidates in at least half of the seats (313 in 1950) they could at least argue that they were fighting to form a government. At the last election in 1945 they had fielded 306 candidates, but won only 12 seats.

The broad front strategy was adpoted and the party fielded 475 candidates. In the event, only 9 of the 475 were elected and 319 of them lost their deposit.

The good news was that the party had managed to insure their candidates' deposits with Lloyds.

Not surprisingly, at the following election in 1951 the insurance policy was no longer on offer and the number of candidates fell to only 109.

Farage/Clegg EU Debate should be a Win-Win

There should be no losers in the debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg over Europe. Neither expects to convert many of the other’s opponents to their point of view. They don’t need to. Both could gain wavering supporters from other parties or amongst the ‘don’t knows’.

Here are two politicians grasping the initiative to discuss something they both really believe in. This should be an authentic argument. Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage both know their subject. Both have experience as MEPs. They have chosen the topic of debate and have won the opportunity to discuss one subject in detail, in contrast to the usual soundbites and superficial coverage.

The personal chemistry should be fairly positive, but the debate sharp. Nigel Farage picked Nick Clegg as his favourite among the other party leaders.

If the debate attracts sufficient interest, it could be the forerunner of more in-depth discussions of subjects which rarely attract the most informed of comment. Perhaps immigration would benefit from an in-depth and informed airing along the same lines.

For the Lib Dems this should be an opportunity to start building a more lasting coalition of voters for the future. The party has the longest track record of consistent support for Europe. The party learned to survive and grow as a party of protest, re-building a coalition of voters at each election, mainly amongst those who wanted to protest against the two biggest parties. This is now Ukip’s job.

The Lib Dems have now turned into a party of government. They need to build a more solid base of supporters who are attracted by distinctive policies. This is the chance to showcase one of them.

Unless, Nigel Farage or Nick Clegg makes a complete hash of the debate - which they probably won’t - it should be a win-win situation, not just for these two parties, but for thorough political debate and engagement. I predict a win-win result.