‘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

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Anniversary of 1918 Election, but not First Votes for Women

Today is the anniversary of the 1918 general election. There were many unusual features about this election:

It was held on a Saturday, just five weeks after the end of the First World War - the first election for eight years. 

Despite the deaths of 885,000 British troops in the war, the electorate tripled. Over 21 million people were eligible to vote in 1918 (including women over 30 years old), compared to only 7.7million in 1910. But the turnout was only 58.9%. Spanish Flu was ravaging the population and young adults were particularly susceptible – 250,000 died in the UK. 24 MPs had been killed in the war – 15 Conservatives, 7 Liberals and 2 Irish Home Rulers.

This election was not actually the first time that women had been allowed to vote in Britain. Women had had the vote in elections for school boards since 1870 and, in theory at least, some women met the qualifications to vote in elections before the 1832 ‘Reform’ Act.

The outcome of the 1918 election was a coalition government of Conservatives and Lloyd George Liberals, faced with a mountain of debt.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Conservative Support Goes South

Conservative Party support is heading south and has been for over 50 years – I mean this literally, rather than metaphorically.

In the 1955 general election the Conservatives won over half the seats in Scotland. If you look at election maps from then and since, the Conservative blue patches have nearly disappeared from Scotland and much of northern England, while the rest of England has gradually become more and more solid blue.

In the Labour high point of the 1945 election, you could travel all the way from London to Liverpool without leaving a Labour-held constituency. After the even bigger Labour win in 1997 you would only have got as far as St Albans. The Conservative blue still dominated southern England even after the party’s serious defeat.

The Conservative drift to the south is reflected in the party’s choice of leader, which in turn reinforces the party’s southern image, which in turn means that there are fewer candidates for the leadership from outside southern England. The Conservative Party becomes more and more English, and southern English at that.

When you compare the three major parties, since 1945 the Conservative Party has had 11 leaders, Labour 10 and the Liberals/Lib Dems 9, demonstrating a surprising amount of equality and stability. On average a leader of any of the major parties remains in post for over seven years.

When you look at the seats represented by the leaders of each of the parties over this time though, an interesting geographical imbalance emerges.

Liberal/Lib Dem leaders’ seats since 1945

England  3
Scotland 5
Wales     1

Labour leaders’ seats since 1945

England  5
Scotland 2
Wales     3

Conservative leaders’ seats since 1945

England  10
Scotland  1

So, while the Labour and Liberal/Lib Dem leaders have included an over-representation of seats outside England (according to population), the Conservative Party has only had one leader representing a seat outside England. This was Alec Douglas-Home, who was only party leader for two years and that was half a century ago.

Tellingly, one Conservative MP described John Major as representing a ‘northern seat’. Huntingdon is not in the north of England on most people’s maps – it is not even north of Birmingham!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Nearest Election to a 3-way Split of Seats

Today is the anniversary of the 1923 general election. The Conservatives won the most seats with 258, Labour had 191 and the Liberals (with the Asquith and Lloyd George wings recently reunited) won 159.

It was the nearest that the country has ever come to an equal three-way split of seats.

The Conservatives, who had been in power before the election, tried to form a minority government.
However, the Liberals and (unsurprisingly) Labour refused to support them on the King’s Speech.

Liberal leader, Asquith could potentially have formed a minority Liberal government, or a coalition with one of the other parties. Instead, he let Labour form their first administration with the words:

"There could be no safer conditions under which to make the experiment".

Asquith was right in the sense that the first Labour government was not dangerous - indeed it was safe, respectable, unadventurous and fairly unobjectionable, even to its opponents.

However, the experiment turned out to be worse than dangerous for the Liberals. Once Labour had become a party of government, the Liberals appeared to have lost their purpose and were punished at the next election, held less than a year later in October 1924. Labour lost office in 1924, but the Liberals lost almost three-quarters of their seats, crashing to only 40 MPs.

One conclusion could be that, given the chance, it is always better to be a party of government.