‘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, 31 October 2012

Women MPs more loyal than men.

Women MPs were in a small minority in the House of Commons for most of the last century and still make up less than a quarter of MPs.  

In my study of defecting MPs and former MPs over the last century, women made up 3.4% of the loyal MPs, but only accounted for 1% of the defectors.

This evidence may provide a new incentive for parties to try and speed up the increase in their proportion of female MPs, as women seem to remain more loyal to their party than men do.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Divorced MPs more likely to defect

Defecting MPs are more than three times as likely as loyalists to be divorced. This is one of the surprising findings from my research into over 100 political defections over the course of the last century.

9.5% of defectors were divorced, compared to only 2.7% of MPs who remained loyal to their party. We can only speculate on the possible reasons for this. Most of the MPs in the study are now dead, and even if they were still alive they may well not have had an explanation themselves. 

However, there are certain character traits which suggest that there would be a correlation between divorcing and defecting. Both acts require a willingness to leave an unsatisfactory relationship, instead of staying and putting up with an uncomfortable situation. Both could be considered to require bravery and/or intolerance and a willingness to take a risk and make a new start.

MPs whose private lives are in turmoil may well find themselves under greater scrutiny from their party's whips, if divorce becomes recognised as a warning sign of possible defection!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Should defectors resign? Tony Benn’s father did.

This week saw a Durham Labour councillor leave the party to sit as an independent. A Liberal Democrat councillor in Norfolk also resigned from his party. They both intend to carry on sitting as independents, having ignored calls for their resignations. When a politician changes party there are usually demands for the defector to resign and fight a by-election, but this very rarely happens.

In my research among MPs covering over a hundred defections and a span of a century, just three resigned their seats on defecting from the Liberals to Labour. Two - Joseph Kenworthy and William Jowitt - won back their seats under their new party colours. The third, William Wedgwood Benn (father of Tony Benn), resigned his seat and declined to stand again in the same constituency.  He was elected as a Labour MP for a different constituency the following year. (His fascinating career will be the subject of my next biography.)

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

None of the 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.

History shows that very few politicians have been willing to take the risk of resigning their seat on changing parties, but of the few bold enough to do so, most won their seats back.

Will sale of Ted Heath’s home reveal his secrets?

Former Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, who died in 2005, lived in a beautiful house near the cathedral in Salisbury.  We hear today that the house is going to have to be sold, as there is too little money coming in to keep it open to the public.

Ted Heath will probably be remembered as the prime minister who called the election in February 1974 over his dispute with the miners and campaigned with the question ‘Who governs?’ Heath actually won more votes (37.9%) than Harold Wilson’s Labour Party (37.2%), but the First Past the Post electoral system delivered four more seats for Labour than for the Conservatives.

A hung parliament resulted and could have opened the way for the first post-war coalition. Talks between Heath and Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe failed to reach agreement. It is interesting to imagine the nature of a coalition between these two leaders, who were polar opposites in personality. Heath was a former army officer, organised but inflexible and scrupulously secretive – his cabinet was probably the most leak-proof ever and his private life still remains a mystery. He never married and kept any relationships secret. Jeremy Thorpe, by contrast, was a showman, famous for leaping over fences and travelling by hovercraft on his election campaigns. His private life was plastered all over the press when he was charged with, but later acquitted of, conspiracy to murder.

The failure of the 1974 coalition talks led to Harold Wilson’s return to power as Labour prime minister, leading a minority government. Wilson called another election in October 1974, which gave him a slim parliamentary majority.

Will the sale of Heath’s home result in the discovery of a cache of papers shedding any more light on its secretive former occupant?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Paddy Ashdown: ‘Toffs’ most likely to defect

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown claimed that an inward defector was the next best thing to a by-election victory – he achieved some of each for the party. He also had a theory that among potential defectors, the Toffs were the most likely to take the plunge and change parties. 

My study of more than a hundred defections - in and out of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats - over the course of a century up to 2010, finds that Paddy Ashdown’s theory can be statistically proven to be correct. On average defectors were from more privileged backgrounds than loyalists. Defectors were wealthier than loyalists. Former senior army officers were also more likely to defect than junior officers and they in turn were more likely to defect than those without military service. 

The spreadsheet of all the data on which the calculations are based is available free of charge - see sidebar. My book detailing the whole study, Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910 to 2010 – a study of interparty relations, is published by Manchester University Press with a foreword by Lord Andrew Adonis. Andrew's own fascinating book Education, Education, Education, has also recently appeared. It is published by Biteback, the publishing house founded by Iain Dale. (Iain published my Clement Davies biography under his previous imprint, Politico's). Paddy Ashdown’s Diaries, published by Penguin, give some fascinating insights into how to spot and reel in defectors.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Centrifugal defections hit SNP

Today we have more examples of centrifugal defections – defections to the outer fringes, both politically and geographically. Two SNP MSPs (John Finnie and Jean Urquhart) have defected from the party over the SNP’s change to a more pro-NATO policy.

This follows the defections of councillors from the Lib Dems to Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall, from the Conservatives to UKIP on the east coast, an MEP from UKIP to the We Demand a Referendum Party and the departure of one of the BNP’s MEPs, all within the last fortnight.

Evidence from the last century shows that defections for career advantage are generally successful – defection is usually a career-enhancing move - but defections in protest over policy usually achieve little.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

More embarrassing whip resignations

The Tories may be upset about the fuss over Andrew Mitchell’s departure as chief whip, but they may take some small comfort in being reminded that the Liberals have had even worse luck with some of their chief whips.

In 1915 Liberal chief whip, Percy Illingworth, died after eating a bad oyster. In 1926 the party’s chief whip Robert Hutchison resigned after voting against his own whip and in March 1946, only eight months after being appointed, Tom Horabin resigned the post of Liberal chief whip and seven months later defected from the party altogether.