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Monday, 19 January 2015

Ten lords who went a-leaping

Political defections usually hit the headlines, but sometimes parliamentarians can defect without anyone even noticing. Most people think of a typical parliamentary defector as an MP crossing the floor of the House of Commons to join a rival party, as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless did in moving from the Conservatives to UKIP. Churchill is also widely remembered for his ratting and re-ratting between the Conservatives and Liberals.

However, with the growth of multi-party politics, many defections do not necessarily involve the symbolic crossing the floor from government to opposition benches, or vice versa. A defection between two opposition parties does not involve crossing the floor, nor does a transfer between parties in a governing coalition.

There have also been examples of hybrid candidates, such as the Constitutionalists in 1924 who temporarily straddled two parties – Liberal and Conservative. Labour and Co-op MPs, including Ed Balls, carry two party labels. The Co-operative Party was established in 1917, but since 1927 has allied itself, but not merged, with the Labour Party.

Party allegiance is usually defined as being in receipt of a party’s whip (a set of briefing papers), but this can leave room for doubt. A whip can be sent and received, but not wanted. There have been examples where an MP’s party allegiance is no longer clear, as was the case with Cecil L’Estrange Malone in 1920, whose constituency chairman had to write and ask him to which party he belonged.

So far, we have only looked at the House of Commons. If it is not always easy to be certain of an MP’s party allegiance, for members of the House of Lords it can be much more difficult still. 

The House of Lords effectively has three sides - not just government and opposition benches, but also cross-benches. There are currently 176 cross-benchers peers, organised to some extent as a group, but not taking any party whip. Some senior Church of England bishops (currently 24) also sit in the House of Lords. They do not belong to any political party or grouping and are not considered to be cross-benchers either. Peers do not have to stand in general elections under a party banner or send out material to constituents. Many lords rarely attend parliament and do not hold ministerial or party office, so there is little evidence of their party allegiance (if any).

Sometimes when lords go a-leaping from one party to another they do cause a bit of a stir, such as the transfers from the Conservatives to UKIP by Lord Stevens of Ludgate, by Lord Willoughby de Broke and by Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

But others can go unnoticed at the time. Robert Munro was a Liberal MP until 1922. He then went to the House of Lords as Baron Alness (the change of name making his career harder to follow) and eventually in 1945 appeared in Churchill’s Caretaker Government, suggesting that he considered himself a Conservative by then, although he never announced a change of party allegiance.

Lord Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader, is now a Conservative member of the House of Lords, although the two parties are now separate.

Then there are peers with hereditary titles, where succeeding generations take a different party whip from their forebears. Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin went to the Lords on his retirement, but his son Oliver, who became the second Earl Baldwin, took the Labour whip. The current (fourth) Earl Baldwin is a cross-bencher. In the opposite direction, the current Lord Attlee, grandson of Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, is a Conservative. Viscount Tenby, grandson of Liberal prime minister Lloyd George and son of a Conservative peer, is a cross-bencher. Lord Trefgarne is a Conservative peer, although he is the son of George Garro-Jones, who was a Liberal, then Labour, then a Liberal again. Viscount Simon, a Labour peer, is the grandson of the first Viscount, who was a Liberal and later a Liberal National politician. 

So, although these ten lords went a-leaping, most of them leapt in the dark. Hardly anyone noticed. 

A version of this article first appeared on the Conversation

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