‘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, 26 June 2013

Forgotten Liberal by-election win in Birmingham

Today is the anniversary of The Liberals’ victory in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election of 1969. The victor was local campaigner, Wallace Lawler, who became the first Liberal MP for a seat in Birmingham since 1886.

Birmingham had had some famous Liberal MPs, including Joseph Chamberlain and John Bright and in 1885 all the Birmingham seats were won by Liberals. However, since the Liberal Unionist split over Irish Home Rule in 1886 no Liberal had been elected for one of the city’s seats.

Wallace Lawler regained a toe hold for the Liberals, but he only held the seat for just under a year until the 1970 general election, when Labour re-captured the seat. Since then the Liberal Democrats have made some progress in Birmingham, with Nicola Davies’s near miss in the 2004 Hodge Hill by-election by just 460 votes, followed by John Hemming’s capture of Birmingham Yardley, which he has held since 2005.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Four Aclands

Today is the anniversary of the Tiverton by-election of 1923, when the Liberals won the seat from the Conservatives, whose MP Herbert Sparkes had died of pneumonia after sitting for only 6 months.

The Liberal by-election victor was Francis Acland, whose father and grandfather had also been Liberal MPs. Francis Acland served four separate periods in parliament for four different constituencies. He was Liberal MP for Richmond in Yorkshire from 1906 to January 1910, for Camborne in Cornwall from December 1910 to 1922, for Tiverton in Devon from the by-election on 21 June 1923 to 1924 and finally for North Cornwall from 1932 until his death in 1939.

Francis Acland’s son, Richard was also a Liberal MP, being elected for Barnstaple in 1935. However, Richard left the Liberal Party during the Second World War to found Common Wealth, a left-wing party which did not abide by the electoral truce and which won three seats in wartime by-elections. Common Wealth held on to only one of its seats in the 1945 election and Richard Acland was defeated. Richard then joined the Labour Party and was elected for Gravesend in a by-election in 1947. However, he defected from the Labour Party in 1955 and stood unsuccessfully as an independent in the general election later that year.

So, Francis Acland the Tiverton by-election winner 90 years ago today served four periods in parliament for four constituencies - all as a Liberal, while his son Richard was the fourth generation to sit in parliament, though he had four different political allegiances.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Are we trapped in the 1970s?

Commentators have been pointing out the similarities between the current political situation and the 1970s, especially the lack of confidence of the major political parties in winning an election. We have many echoes of the 1970s – a hung parliament, a focus on the relationship between the Conservatives and the Liberals/Lib Dems, rows over the influence of trades unions, unrest in the Middle East, a looming European referendum and even a new Bowie song.

But there is one significant difference. In the 1970s many people were seriously worried that Britain was becoming ‘ungovernable’. Now, far fewer people seem to worry about the government.

There are several reasons for this. We have gone through what has technically been the worst recession in over 100 years, but fewer people have lost their homes than in the early 1990s, fewer people are unemployed than in the 1980s. People are not panicking about fuel shortages and power cuts as they were in the 1970s. The fear factor is largely missing.

We also no longer have the fear of a hung parliament. We have now had over four years of a coalition government, which was supposed to be weak, unstable and unlikely to last. It has lasted, and if it is not universally popular, that is more to do with the toughness of the cuts, rather than its weakness.

We have a wide range of competent politicians, but we are short of good leaders. It is clearer than ever that no political party has a monopoly of talent. In the 1970s, only the Labour and Conservative Parties had any realistic claim to administrative experience and competence. Now, a total of 10 different parties have been in power across Westminster and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. All 10 seem to have been up to the task; none has failed to rise to the challenge.

Political parties need to be awake to the danger of falling into one of two categories at the moment – nervous, downbeat, backward-looking parties arguing over fine details of past mistakes or simplistic, over-confident radical alternatives that deal with fragments of problems and provide solutions which do not stand up to scrutiny.

Despite their differences in philosophy, there is one thing which unites those leaders who seem to be popular at the moment – confidence. This is probably the one thing that links Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Alex Salmond. But on the track record of the 10 parties who have been in power, all leaders should be displaying more confidence in their own abilities.

No party owns any of the controversial issues, but most appear to think that they have no-go areas, where they dare not tread. UKIP does not own Europe, the Greens don’t own renewable energy, the Conservatives do not own defence, Labour does not own health, the Lib Dems do not own liberty. Political leaders need to shed their fears and step into the controversies, making bridges between issues. Let’s hear UKIP talking about the NHS, the LibDems talking about defence, Labour talking about Europe, the Conservatives discussing renewable energy.

The 1970s were not a period which politicians can look back on with pride. Let’s not fall into the trap of the fearful 70s - let’s see some confidence that each of the parties really believes that it is up to the job of government. They have the track record to prove that they are.

But maybe we are stuck in the 1970s. We still don’t know for sure if there is life on Mars.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Did WW1 cause the Liberal decline?

In December 1910, the Liberal Party was in power, cohesive and with Labour as its junior partner under the Gladstone-MacDonald electoral pact agreed in 1903. At that time the likelihood of a large number of defections from the Liberals to the Labour Party seemed very remote. Yet, in the 38 years from the end of the war, 45 Liberal MPs and former MPs defected to the Labour Party. 
Circumstantially, the timing suggested that the war was the cause of the defections. This explanation was taken up by Trevor Wilson and has been accepted, at least in significant part, by other historians such as David Dutton and party officials since then. However, my analysis of the individual defections casts doubt on this theory.

For most of the First World War, the Labour Party was more split over policy than the Liberals and it was not actively trying to recruit Liberal defectors. Neither the war, nor any other cause outside of the Liberal Party’s control or influence, was the cause of any of the defections. The factors which led to the defections included local Liberal associations deselecting candidates who wished to stand again. This was not party policy, and other war policy objectors were re-adopted as Liberal candidates in other constituencies. Some were re-elected. Of the 35 Liberal MPs who had objected to the Liberal government’s war policies, for 28 of them (80%) this did not prevent their continuing to pursue a career in Liberal politics.

The only former Liberal MPs who stood as Labour candidates in 1918 were Edward John and Leo Chiozza Money. John was motivated by Welsh Nationalism and Money by a highly individualistic focus on shipping nationalisation. Neither re-entered Parliament and both later became dissatisfied with Labour’s stance on their chosen topics. Money’s career eventually foundered when he was charged with indecency over an incident on a train. He (unsuccessfully) claimed that he had been wearing a distinctive hat on that day, and, had he done anything wrong, a signalman in one of the signal boxes along the route would have noticed.

Most of the leftward defections which came after the war were motivated more by the problems of the Liberal Party, than by the attractions of the Labour Party – they were a product of a failure of the Liberal Party, not a failure of Liberalism.

For over half of the Liberal MPs and former MPs who eventually defected to the Labour Party, their move was not a success. Some of the dissatisfaction can be attributed to the difficulty for the former Liberals to assimilate themselves socially into Labour circles, where a culture of trade unionism, party discipline, dogged commitment in adversity and, in, some cases, poverty predominated. Many of the former Liberals, generally from wealthy professional backgrounds, found it difficult to make friends with, and to be trusted by, their Labour colleagues. Of the forty-five who had made the transition to Labour by 1956, twenty-four (53%) either left the Labour Party or became seriously dissatisfied with their new party.

So, from the evidence of defections, the First World War was not the reason that the Liberal Party lost its position to Labour. Most of the issues, particularly of leadership, could have been resolved within the Liberal Party, but Asquith and Lloyd George were squabbling like divorcing parents. The Liberal MPs became like their neglected children and many left the family. One later reflected that he would have stayed, had the leadership ‘held out a hand’ to him.

Party culture can be understood more in the light of a family, than a business, as was highlighted by the Morrissey Report.

My book ‘Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910 to 2010’ studies all the defectors and their motives. It is published by Manchester University Press. It was recently reviewed by the LSE Review of Books, as providing ‘a valuable new perspective on the decline of the Liberal Party’..

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Morrissey and why the LibDems are short of women

Helena Morrissey has produced a balanced and insightful report into the way in which the Liberal Democrats dealt with (or, rather, did not deal with) complaints about sexual harassment within the party. She also draws out some fascinating observations on the party, which ring true with my research findings which cover the whole century to 2010.

My interest is in the broader picture, but I have just one observation on the specific allegations. Over the years I have had minimal contact with the BBC, other than occasional interviews, but I have been aware of the Jimmy Savile allegations for, perhaps, 25 years. On the other hand, I have been involved with the Liberals and LibDems in one way or another for over 50 years (man and boy, I hasten to add) and I had never heard anything of the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard until they surfaced on Channel 4 News. Whether this is significant, I am not sure. It says nothing of the rights or wrongs of the allegations, but it probably does reinforce one of Helena Morrissey’s overall conclusions that the Liberal Democrat Party is diffuse, complicated, without clear lines of communication and that news or gossip does not necessarily travel as far as you might expect.

Morrissey suggests that the Lib Dems (and, to a greater or lesser extent, other parties) behave more like a family or a religion than a business, tending to pull together in times of difficulty, which encourages members not to complain and to suffer in silence for the greater good.

The report also highlights how a key figure can be the ideal leader for certain circumstances, giving them power and influence, but that when circumstances change, power needs to move on. Margaret Thatcher after 1987, Lloyd George after 1918 and Churchill after 1945 were all previous examples.

Another observation is that political parties are never fully in control of their own destiny. However good a leader and his or her policies are, voters and competing political parties will always have a greater influence on party fortunes. The Liberals/Lib Dems have had to adapt more than most parties over the last century, from the party of government before the First World War to a rump of 5 MPs in the 1950s, followed by a slow and fairly steady recovery, which now amounts to over 50 MPs and a share of government again. This has involved huge changes in reputation, personnel and finance. That the party survived at all, is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story, but here the religious-style beliefs and the diffuse nature of the organisation played a significant part.

My research into all the MPs and former MPs who defected to or from the party between 1910 and 2010 shows that over half the defectors left for better prospects after the Liberal Party declined in the 1920s, that a smaller number left due to policy disputes and that only 3% left due to a personality clash. Of those who left over a policy dispute, many remained on friendly terms with their former party leader, suggesting that the ties were more familial than businesslike.

Only 21 of the 707 Liberal and Lib Dem MPs over the century (just 3.4%) were female, which says a lot about the very slow progress towards equality, but interestingly, the few female MPs were much less likely to defect from the party than their male colleagues.

Political parties are not gender-equal organisations. They are more equal than most religions and many industries, such as banking or architecture. But, they lag way behind professions such as journalism or academia. Even during the Liberals’ darkest years, MPs on average sat for over 10 years, so some inertia is to be expected. But there are cultural reasons why the Lib Dems, despite their genuine belief in equality, have been slow and clumsy putting it into practice. Suffering discrimination in silence is one reason, but the party is a trusting and laissez-faire organisation, much more so than the Labour Party and to a lesser extent than the Conservatives. A trusting and relaxed culture is a positive thing in many ways, but not when it means that half of the population is not able to make a full contribution, because of their gender.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Blacklisting – never knowingly underhand

Last night’s BBC Panorama programme revealed some of the covert blacklisting measures used by some of the biggest construction companies in the UK, at least until relatively recently.

But industrial blacklisting is not new – probably dating back at least to the First World War.

Nor has it been confined to the construction industry. One of the more surprising organisations to attempt to employ it was the John Lewis Partnership, as I found out in documents at the Parliamentary Archives, while I was researching for my forthcoming biography of William Wedgwood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate.

The John Lewis Partnership is generally highly-regarded for its service, partly as a result of the motivation of its workers, who are partners in the business and who receive a share of the profits. They are also widely consulted on issues affecting the running of the business, which operates the John Lewis and Waitrose shops.

On 7 May 1949 the John Lewis Partnership’s house newspaper, the Gazette, carried a report that Colin Thornton-Kemsley, described elsewhere as the Partnership’s Director of Public Relations, who was also a National Liberal MP (effectively a Conservative), had proposed to the Central Management of the John Lewis Partnership that ‘all present Partners and future applicants for membership of the Partnership be required to sign a declaration that they are neither members of the Communist Party, nor in sympathy with the doctrines of that Party.’

There were, in 1949, two democratically-elected Communist MPs in the House of Commons. The John Lewis Partnership would effectively have been saying that someone who was acceptable as an MP, involved in issues of national security and finance, would not be an acceptable person to sell cheese in Waitrose.

The proposal raised some interesting ethical debates. It was democratically discussed within the business, but anyone who might have been blacklisted could have lost their job. This might have applied to someone who voted for one of the democratically-elected Communist MPs, as that voter presumably could have been deemed to be sympathetic to the Communist Party’s doctrines. Looked at another way, workers would have been put under pressure about how they voted, on pain of losing their job if it became known that they voted for certain candidates.

Viscount Stansgate raised the matter in the House of Lords and, from the evidence I have seen, the proposal never seems to have been implemented.

At least, unlike the construction companies, the John Lewis Partnership was open and democratic about its proposal and all partners had an opportunity to express their opinion.

Never knowingly underhand!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Anniversary of Thatcher's greatest victory in 1983

Two days ago we had the anniversary of the middle one of Tony Blair’s three election victories. Today it is the anniversary of the middle one of Margaret Thatcher’s three wins.

Margaret Thatcher faced a very different electoral landscape in 1983, compare to her first election as Conservative leader in 1979. In 1979 the motivation of many voters was to remove the Labour government of James Callaghan, in the wake of the Winter of Discontent. At that stage, Margaret Thatcher was a relatively unknown figure and voters had never heard of Thatcherism.

1983 was completely different. Out-spoken Thatcher, emboldened by the Falklands War, faced a divided opposition. The Labour Party leadership had passed to Michael Foot, admired as an orator, well-liked as a person, but a very poor party leader with a very left-wing agenda. The SDP had been formed, drawing 28 defecting MPs from the Labour Party and one Conservative. In December 1981 the SDP had reached an opinion poll rating of 50.5%, but this had been before the Falklands.

When it came to the 1983 election, the SDP fought in alliance with the Liberal Party and the Alliance very nearly caught up with the Labour Party in terms of votes – 7.8 million (25.4%) for the Alliance, compared to Labour’s 8.5 million (27.6%).

But the SDP won just six seats, holding five of the 30 seats it was defending (Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams had won seats in by-elections and one sitting MP stood down) and winning one new one– and the Liberals won 17. As one of the SDP MPs conceded afterwards, their targeting was not effective.

Under the first past the post system, votes do not readily translate into seats at Westminster, as Ukip may well find out in 2015.

Margaret Thatcher reached her peak of 397 seats in 1983, but this was just short of Tony Blair’s haul of 413 in his second victory in 200l. Margaret Thatcher, like Tony Blair, went on to win three elections in total, an impressive record for any leader, but she was successively up against Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock and a divided opposition.