‘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

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Anniversary of the election of the unluckiest prime minister

Some prime ministers are luckier than others. Tony Blair was probably the luckiest post-war prime minister. During his 10 years in power he faced a succession of struggling Conservative Party leaders, he won an overall majority in 2005 on only 35.2% of the vote, the economy grew, inflation stayed low and his health held out.

Today though sees the anniversary of the election of, arguably, the unluckiest of all post-war prime ministers – Ted Heath. Heath was not expected to win the 1970 general election. Opinion polls put his Labour rival, Harold Wilson, in the lead. However, on 18 June 1970 Ted Heath won the election with 330 seats to Wilson’s 288. Heath had served as leader of the opposition for five years and so had had time to plan his premiership. His ministerial team almost all had experience of their portfolios in opposition. His cabinet was the most leak-proof of all post-war cabinets. What could possibly go wrong?

The first disaster was when Heath’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Iain Macleod, collapsed and died from a heart attack after exactly one month in the post. During that month he had already been rushed to hospital for 11 days with appendicitis. Macleod was highly regarded on all sides of the House of Commons for his oratory and incisive views. He had previously served as Minister of Health in the early 1950s, but did not take his own advice. In 1952 he announced to the world that Richard Doll had discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer: Macleod chain-smoked throughout the press conference.

Heath’s luck went from bad to worse. His time in office saw ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Northern Ireland in which British troops shot and killed 14 (eventually established to be innocent) civilians, an oil crisis, the collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and Rolls Royce which he was forced to nationalise, high inflation and two miners’ strikes, the second of which led to the Three-Day week.

Eventually, after less than four years in office, Heath called an election for 28 February 1974, posing the question ‘Who governs?’ In terms of votes, Heath won the February 1974 election, but in terms of seats, he lost – the third time in the twentieth century that the party with the most votes did not have the most seats (the others being 1929 and 1951). Heath held abortive coalition discussions with Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, but left office on 4 March 1974, never to return.

Ted Heath remains something of an enigma. He never married and never revealed the existence of any partner. His hobbies were playing the piano and sailing, which added to his image of an aloof and remote man. Towards the end of his life, he was reckoned to have no living relatives at all.

Heath remained in the House of Commons until 2001, having sat for longer after his premiership than before. His post-prime ministerial period has been described as ‘the longest sulk’ in British political history, while he watched his successor, Margaret Thatcher, win three consecutive elections. However, he did stay long enough to see her departure, on which he was reported as exclaiming ‘Rejoice, rejoice!’ He later corrected the record, saying that he had actually said ‘Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!’

The one significant achievement for which Heath should be remembered was taking the UK into the EEC.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Political dynasties: Why Tony Benn did not want a viscountcy fixed in his blood or annexed to his posterity

The death of Tony Benn, third of four generations of his family to sit in the House of Commons, and the selection of Stephen Kinnock, son of the former Labour leader, as a candidate for the next general election, thrust the spotlight onto political dynasties.

A political dynasty can be defined as a succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in politics. But are political dynasties what they used to be and what exactly is passed from generation to generation?

The only thing which is inevitably passed from one generation to the next is DNA. This alone can have a significant influence on someone’s life and career. Tony Benn’s ancestors, including his father, were generally long-lived. Knowing this, when he was young Tony Benn was able to write confidently that he expected to live to 82. He did in fact manage nearly another seven years on top of this. Tony Benn and Denis Healy, whose father lived to 92, shared this optimism, even if they did not agree on everything else. They did not need to be young men in a hurry to achieve everything they wanted. Contrastingly, Enoch Powell believed that he was going to die in the Second World War and made no plans for his subsequent career.

The most recognisable aspect of a political dynasty is usually the name. The Benn and Kinnock names are unusual and distinctive. They are recognised internationally. But names can change. As quite a few will remember, Tony Benn’s father became the first Viscount Stansgate. Fewer would realise that Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was the same person as Viscount Cranborne, or that he is now known as the seventh Marquess of Salisbury. He is the great-great grandson of the Conservative prime minister at the turn of the 20th century. His family has at least been consistent with first names - four of the last five generations of title holders being called Robert. Tony Benn’s (disused) middle name of Wedgwood originated from his grandmother’s uncertain belief that the family was related to the eponymous potters. In fact there was a connection, but it dated back four generations before Josiah Wedgwood, who opened the pottery. Their common ancestors were Margaret Burslem (1594-1655) and her husband Gilbert Wedgwood (1588 -1678) - long lived, especially by the standard of the time.

Churchill famously wanted a Lloyd George and an Asquith in his cabinet in 1951. He succeeded with the former (Gwilym), but failed to persuade Cyril Asquith to sit on the woolsack. Whether a prime minister Miliband would want a Blair and a Brown in his cabinet is perhaps more doubtful and David Cameron will definitely not have a Thatcher and a Heath in his. However tempted (or not) he might be by the idea of Sir Mark Thatcher’s presence, Ted Heath had no descendants.

Earlier generations of political dynasties were often sustained by the inheritance of a seat in the House of Lords, as was the case with the Salisburys. However, for a politician determined on a career in the House of Commons, as was Tony Benn, the inheritance of a peerage was a nuisance - to put it mildly. His early attempt to rid himself of the viscountcy was met with the response that the peerage was ‘a personal dignity annexed to the posterity and fixed in the blood’. Whilst Tony Benn may have had a small amount of clay running in his arteries, he refused to accept that the viscountcy of Stansgate was fixed in his blood or annexed to his posterity. He eventually managed to relieve himself of it by means of the Peerage Act of 1963. Tony Benn’s eldest son, Stephen has inherited the viscountcy. No longer does this bring an automatic seat in the House of Lords. Under the 1999 rules, a hereditary peer can stand for election only when there is a vacancy among the 90 places reserved for hereditary peers. 42 of these seats are reserved for Conservative supporters, three for Liberal Democrats and only two for Labour. The electorate is limited to other peers. So the inheritance of a viscountcy gives entitlement to stand in such an election, but no more.

A potential asset to be passed between generations is experience. Tony Benn claimed to have the political memory of someone much older than his chronological age, as his father had explained so much of his own experiences, memories and learning from past mistakes. A body of knowledge and experience can be a valuable inheritance, especially among politicians who reach their peak at an increasingly early age.

So, how valuable is membership of a political dynasty these days? It certainly didn’t help Tamsin Dunwoody, who failed to hold her late mother’s seat in the by-election at Crewe and Nantwich in 2008. Instead, it became the first time that the Conservatives had captured a seat from the Labour Party at a by-election since 1978. Nor, did it seem to help David Prescott, who failed to be selected as a candidate to succeed to his father as MP for Hull East. Stephen Kinnock and Will Straw have passed this hurdle, but they still have to convince the voters to elect them. Tony Benn’s granddaughter, Emily, fought and lost a seat in the 2010 election, but at the age of only 24, she probably has time to try again. Tony Benn’s son (and Emily’s uncle), Hilary, was elected as Labour MP for Leeds Central in 1999 and made it to the cabinet.

From a party political point of view, dynastic families are not guaranteed to maintain the loyalties of their forebears. Oliver, son of Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, became a Labour MP. The current Earl Attlee, grandson of the Labour prime minister, is a Conservative. Tony Benn’s father defected from the Liberals to the Labour Party, largely as a result of his dislike for Lloyd George. In turn Lloyd George’s children, Megan and Gwilym diverged to the Labour and Conservative parties respectively.

International dynastic families are usually to be found amongst royalty, rather than politicians, so the selection of Stephen Kinnock, husband of the Danish prime minister, as a Labour candidate in Wales is unusual. The ‘first gentleman’ of Denmark could become a British MP. He would join a select group, including Graca Machel, widow of both former South African president, Nelson Mandela and of former Mozambican president, Samora Machel. She has thus held the position of first lady of two different countries.

Membership of a political dynasty is certainly declining in value. These days not so many people are desperate for a personal dignity annexed to their posterity and fixed in their blood. Toil, sweat and tears are more valuable currencies in British politics.

My post above first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog. Tony Benn's father, William Wedgwood Benn, is the subject of my forthcoming biography.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

First Past the Post does not always do what it says on the tin

The UK’s quirky electoral system is widely liked for its supposed ability to deliver strong single-party governments, exaggerating the winning party’s advantage in terms of seats. But, this view rather overlooks the fact that under First Past the Post the UK has actually had a coalition government for 25 of the last 100 years and that in three general elections the party with the most votes did not win the most seats. This happened in 1929, 1951 and the February 1974 general elections.

Storm clouds gathered after each of these elections. The 1929 general election was held at the end of the only single-party government to serve nearly a full term between the wars. Conservative Stanley Baldwin, fighting on a slogan of ‘Safety First’, won 38.2% of the vote, but fewer seats (260) than Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party with 37.1% of the vote (288 seats). MacDonald formed his ill-fated second ministry. The 1929 election was in May. In October Wall Street crashed.

In 1951 Winston Churchill finally won an election at his third attempt. Even though he had already been prime minister for five years, he had lost his two previous contests as party leader (in 1945 and 1950). In October 1951 he attracted 48.0% of the vote, but won more seats (321) than Clement Attlee’s Labour Party which had achieved 48.8% of the vote (but only 295 seats). Churchill offered Liberal leader, Clement Davies, a coalition, but the Liberals rejected the offer. Churchill took power with a fragile overall majority, but just over a year after his victory he had to contend with the East Coast Floods – a lethal combination of a cyclone, a gale from Europe and a high tide.

In February 1974 Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath tried to resolve an industrial dispute with the miners by calling an election to answer the question ‘Who governs?’ The response from the electorate was to give Heath 37.9% of the vote (297 seats), compared to Harold Wilson’s 37.2% for the Labour Party. But Labour won more seats (301). Heath tried to persuade the Liberals, under Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership, to agree to a coalition. But this second proposed Conservative-Liberal arrangement was also rejected by the Liberals. This time it was the Labour Party which took power, but without an overall majority until after the second election of the year in October.

So, not only have we had coalitions for a quarter of the last century, we have also had aborted negotiations which could have led to others. But, the quirks in the First Past the Post system extend beyond just the ability occasionally to deliver victory to a party with a smaller share of the vote. The system can also work to the extreme disadvantage of parties with evenly-spread, but sizeable, shares of the vote. The most prominent example of this was the fate of the Liberal-SDP Alliance in the 1983 general election. The Alliance achieved 25.4% of the vote, but only 23 seats, while the Labour Party, just ahead on 27.6% of the vote, won 209 seats. Even then the Alliance results were helped by the fact that 17 of the seats were won by Liberals in areas of established Liberal strength and of the six seats won by the SDP, five went to sitting MPs. The Alliance gained plenty of (rather worthless) second places, something for which UKIP is now building a reputation in by-elections – Eastleigh, Wythenshawe and Sale East, South Shields, Middlesbrough, Barnsley Central, Rotherham and now at Newark.

There are further quirks in the system which favour parties which concentrate their vote in seats with smaller electorates (particularly in Wales and urban England) and in those with lower turnouts (mainly urban). The Labour Party currently benefits most from this pattern of support. It also tends to win more seats with smaller majorities than its competitors, thus spreading its vote most efficiently. Hence in 2005 Tony Blair was able to achieve a comfortable parliamentary majority on 35.2% of the vote, while in 2010 with the Conservatives on 36.1% the party was short of a majority.

Then there is the effect of tactical voting. In past elections this has tended to disadvantage the Conservatives. This was particularly true in 1997 when Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters voted tactically to keep Conservative candidates out. In that election the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote went down, but their tally of seats doubled. There is some evidence from recent YouGov polls and from the Newark by-election that UKIP is polarising opinions, with some people strongly supporting the party, but an increasing proportion feeling strongly against it. Those who want to prevent UKIP winning a seat could vote tactically for whichever other party appears to have the greatest prospect of stopping UKIP. This would normally be the incumbent party. The effect could be to shore up the vote of incumbent party candidates and mean that fewer seats change hands.

Gladstone loved studying the effects of ‘political meteorology’. What would he have made of the prospect of all these elements of a perfect political storm coinciding? It is not too difficult to imagine an election where several parties achieved a very similar share of the vote - in fact it just happened in the European elections. UKIP won 26.8% (not too dissimilar to the SDP-Liberal Alliance total in 1983), Labour won 24.7% and the Conservatives 23.3%, Greens 7.7% and Liberal Democrats 6.7%.

Between now and the 2015 general election it is within the realms of possibility that the vote shares could stay roughly the same, but that the UKIP high tide will have just passed. (The Liberal-SDP share of the vote had peaked at 50.5% in opinion polls before the 1983 election). It is also entirely feasible that the Conservative vote may increase due to improvements in the economy, to the point where the party’s vote just overtakes that of the Labour Party.

We could be left with a situation where the shares of the vote end up at, say, UKIP 26%, Conservative 25%, Labour 24%, Liberal Democrat 12% and Green 8%. This is not a forecast, but it is a feasible (if unlikely) scenario, which illustrates how the First Past the Post system could produce a very perverse result. With these shares of the vote, with all the elements of political meteorology in play, the system could deliver UKIP no seats (but hundreds of second places) and the Labour Party more seats than the Conservatives, but short of an overall majority. The Liberal Democrats could lose half their vote, but keep most of their seats.

The outcome could be that the party with the most votes won no seats, the third party got into power, ending up in a coalition with the fourth party, which stayed in government despite halving its share of the vote.

We could be heading into the perfect political storm – a cyclone of switching voters, a high tide of UKIP support and a gale from Europe, but in terms of seats, when the storm has passed nothing very much might have changed.

My article above first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog.