‘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 July 2013

William Jowitt – a Clever but Tortured Defector

Today is the anniversary of an unusual by-election. It was caused when William Jowitt, who had been elected as the Liberal MP for Preston in the general election of 29 May 1929, resigned his seat on defecting from the Liberals to Labour less than two months later.

Jowitt had nine older sisters and a vicar for a father and in life he always seemed to be searching for guidance from above. He wrote to his friends that he was ‘tortured to know what to do’ and ‘much too sensitive’ to deal with the trauma of defection.

Jowitt confusingly faced a Conservative challenger called Howitt and an Independent Labour candidate, but no Liberal candidate at the by-election. Jowitt beat Howitt and retained his seat and went on to serve as Attorney General in the second Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald.

Jowitt followed MacDonald into the National Government in 1931, for which he was expelled from the Labour Party. He found himself out of Parliament at the 1931 general election, but eventually managed to persuade the Labour Party to re-admit him in 1936. He was re-elected unopposed as a Labour MP in October 1939 and went on to serve in the governments of Churchill and Attlee. He was created Viscount Jowitt in 1947 and Earl Jowitt in 1951.

Only two other Liberal MPs since the First World War resigned their seats on leaving the Liberal Party to join Labour – Joseph Kenworthy and William Wedgwood Benn. Benn also served in MacDonald's second government, but stayed with the Labour Party in 1931. He was eventually created Viscount Stansgate. This became the first ever title to be renounced under the Peergage Act 1963, passed exactly 50 years ago today, after it had been inherited by his son, Tony Benn.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Immigration - Can we believe official figures?

Talking about the sensitive issue of immigration, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin said ‘Most people would be utterly astonished to learn that there is no attempt to count people as they enter or leave the UK'.

Should we be shocked, worried, disappointed or just accept that realistically it would be too expensive and too difficult to find out the numbers?

We can find out almost anything if we design a suitable system and we are prepared to pay for it. We will always have to accept that there will be a margin of error – but how much is acceptable?

When it comes to actual votes cast in an election, how accurate are these? Exact results are recorded down to the last vote. These figures are pretty accurate, but when there is a re-count, the new result does not always (or even usually) tally exactly with the first count. Human error plays a part. I have been an observer at election counts and in a two-hour session I spotted two wrongly-allocated ballot papers. In this case it would not have mattered because the errors would have cancelled themselves out, but I was just one observer among about 12 and only for part of the count, so a small margin of error is likely to exist.  Fraud, is rare, but not unknown, in British politics. Another reason for doubt about the exact figures is the number of spoilt or dubious ballots, where voters have written on the paper, identified themselves or put a cross which is not completely in one box. Normally the candidates agree on which papers should be counted, but it is not an exact science. But, most people would agree that election results are a fair reflection of the votes cast.

Most people are happy that opinion polls based on a sample of around 1,000 voters are accurate enough to give an idea of the relative positions of the parties and over time they can give a view of trends in support. 95% of the time the figures for party support will be within a margin of 3% of the figure reported. Given the cost of opinion polls, most people would rather have them as an affordable estimate of party support, rather than go without.

For crime figures we have police records and surveys conducted among a sample of the population. Since the figures, arrived at in completely different ways by different organisations, usually tally fairly closely, we can believe that they are a good indication of general trends in crime.

Every 10 years we have a very expensive census, designed to provide an accurate snapshot of the population. I worked on the 2011 Census and the workers were carefully selected, well-trained and the forms and systems were well designed. Households were asked to return their forms by a certain date and then collectors went to all the addresses where no form had been returned. The collectors went back perhaps as many as eight times to some addresses and where no answer could be obtained, neighbours, estate agents and other sources of information were used to try to find out if someone lived there. However, even with this well-designed and expensive exercise, if a householder was deliberately trying to give false information, they were quite likely to have gone unnoticed. The exercise relied on honesty. Most people are honest, but not all.

So, for most practical purposes we have figures which we can be confident are accurate enough for decision-making, not ridiculously expensive to gather and that we have some idea of the limits of their accuracy.

When it comes to the delicate issue of immigration, we could reasonably expect, with all the border checks at air and sea ports, that a pretty close eye is kept on the numbers of people entering and leaving the country. In this context, Bernard Jenkin’s comment that ‘Most people would be utterly astonished to learn that there is no attempt to count people as they enter or leave the UK’ is a valid one. I count myself among the astonished. A major part of the system for counting, or in this case estimating, the numbers of people coming and going from the UK is the International Passenger Survey, which was designed in the 1960s to track tourism, based on random interviews with a sample of travellers. According to the Public Administration Committee, chaired by Jenkin, only 5,000 migrants a year are identified through the survey. Most of the rest of the figures are estimates extrapolated from the survey and with a large (and unknown) margin of error.

Astonished – I think we should be. Would we be happy to know that a football match ended roughly as a draw?..that a cricketer scored somewhere between 97 and 103?..or that Andy Murray was somewhere in the top two or three at Wimbledon?

Friday, 26 July 2013

Anniversary of Liberals' Double By-election Victory

Today is the anniversary of the only day in the 20th century when the Liberal Party won two by-elections in one day - at Ely and Ripon on this day in 1973. They occurred under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe at the time when Ted Heath’s Conservative government was beset by problems.

Clement Freud, journalist, author, chef, racing tipster, broadcaster and dog food advertiser won the Isle of Ely by-election for the Liberals, taking the seat from the Conservatives. He remained in parliament until 1987. He was the grandson of Sigmund Freud and said that when he met Winston Churchill’s grandson, it was the only time in his life that he had been ‘out-grandfathered’. Clement Freud died in 2009, just short of his 85th birthday.

The Liberal winner of the Ripon by-election was bookshop owner David Austick, who also took the seat from the Conservatives - although he only held it until the following general election in February 1974, serving as an MP for just 217 days. He died in 1997.

The Liberals had already won two by-elections, at Rochdale and Sutton and Cheam earlier in the parliament and the party went on to win Berwick-upon-Tweed later in 1973 – a seat still held by the same MP, Sir Alan Beith.

Clement Freud was famous for looking as miserable as his co-star, Henry the bloodhound, who appeared with him in the television dog food advertisements. But on this day in 1973 even he had cause to celebrate. It is not often that a dog meat advertiser wins a by-election for a party led by the son of a horsemeat butcher. (See my post on Jeremy Thorpe 12 February this year).

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Inconvenient Good News on Crime

Crime rates have been falling consistently in Britain since a peak in the 1990s. This should be good news for politicians, but rather inconveniently it has fallen steadily under Conservative, Labour and now under LibDem/Conservative coalition governments. It has also fallen despite a drop in police numbers – down by 14,000 since 2010. It has fallen during times of recession as well as economic growth. It has also fallen during times of high immigration and rapid population increase. And, perhaps most inconveniently, it has fallen in most developed countries, regardless of whether they have adopted repressive or liberal policies.

Maybe it’s time for a complete, non-partisan, re-think about crime – and the causes of crime. Surely the evidence points away from prison regimes, longer sentences, economic causes or size of police forces.

Some underlying hidden, but generally positive, forces seem to be at work here and yet politicians and the media seem to be stuck on the same old analysis.

Evidence seems to be pointing at factors such as the removal of lead from paint and petrol, which used to cause brain damage in young people. More likely it was poison at work, not prison.

Head injuries often result in a reduced ability to assess risks, so it is no surprise that a significant proportion of prisoners suffered head injuries prior to offending. Cycle helmets probably reduce crime.

Over 70% of the prison population has two or more mental health issues and as many as 10% of the prison population are ex-service personnel, who will have been at risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Do we really want to stigmatise people with mental health issues, head injuries and former soldiers, or do we really want to understand the causes of crime, so that we can direct our toughness where it may actually do some good? 

But perhaps that might just be too inconvenient for the police, the media, politicians and the armed forces.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Death of a Political Chameleon

16 August is the anniversary of the death of Maurice Alexander in 1945. Alexander was a political chameleon. He was a Canadian-trained Jewish lawyer and army officer. Never married, he lived in Park Lane in central London and on an estate on the Surrey-Hampshire borders, where he eventually gave refuge to a hundred Basque children fleeing the Spanish Civil War. 

Alexander was elected as a National (Lloyd George) Liberal for Southwark South East in 1922, having received official Conservative backing after he had ‘given specific pledges of support to a Bonar Law Ministry’.  In 1923 he was rumoured to be about to join the Conservatives.  However, in the event, he fought and lost the 1923 and 1924 elections as a Liberal.

By 1931, Alexander’s political orientation had completely reversed, and he stood as a full-blooded Labour candidate for Newcastle East. He roundly condemned Ramsay MacDonald for forming the National Government, but claimed that MacDonald had offered him the post of Under Secretary for War to tempt him to join the National Government.  MacDonald repudiated the claim that he had made the offer, but Alexander stood by his version of events. 

Alexander lost the 1931 contest to his National Liberal opponent. Although never a MacDonald supporter, Alexander changed his attitude to the National Government when Chamberlain was Prime Minister. In 1938 Alexander was reported to be likely to be chosen as the National Government candidate for West Bermondsey, in opposition to Labour’s Dr. Salter.

However, Alexander died suddenly at the age of only 55 on 16 August 1945 and never put this, his fourth, political label, to the test.