‘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

Monday, 13 October 2014

The 4 Liberal MPs who might have defected to UKIP

It is extremely unlikely that any current LibDem MP would defect to UKIP. In fact Nick Clegg so far has an unspoilt track record of avoiding defections among his MPs and former MPs to any other party. Despite the strains of being in a coalition government with the Conservatives, no current or former LibDem MP has defected under Nick Clegg’s leadership – a record shared only with Ming Campbell and David Steel.

However, the longer-term history of the Liberal Party was littered with defections of MPs and former-MPs – in fact in the hundred years from 1910 to 2010, 122 MPs or former-MPs defected from the party. Is it conceivable that any of them would have defected to UKIP, had the party been around at the time?

Most of the defectors went to the Labour and Conservative parties, (in fairly equal numbers), motivated by better career prospects or because of policy disagreements. None of these would have been likely converts to UKIP instead, had the option been available. However, there were other defectors who went to minor parties, and not necessarily the ones you would expect a former-Liberal MP to join.

Among the 122 defecting Liberal MPs or former-MPs were five who made the move to a radical populist party, and among these there might have been some who could have been tempted to join UKIP, given the opportunity. The five were Horatio Bottomley, Cecil Beck, Cecil Dudgeon, John Pratt and Donald Bennett.

Horatio Bottomley was expelled from the Liberal Party after being declared bankrupt in 1911. He returned to Parliament in 1918 and formed the nucleus of his own radical populist party. Bottomley was too wilful and self-important to have joined anyone else’s party, so he would not have been tempted to join UKIP, unless there had been a vacancy for its leadership. Ukip would have been better off without him, anyway. In 1922 he was convicted of fraudulent conversion and sentenced to seven years in prison. One other Liberal MP, Cecil Beck, was tempted to join Bottomley before his final departure from the Commons and Beck does appear to have been a possible candidate for conversion to the UKIP cause.

The New Party was founded in 1931 by Oswald Mosley, before he became a fascist. The party had a clearly-worked out set of Keynesian economic policies. It attracted former Liberal MPs Cecil Dudgeon and John Pratt. Cecil Dudgeon was in Parliament as a Liberal MP in 1931, but feared the loss of his seat at the next election. He stood under New Party colours in 1931, and lost (as he almost certainly would have done, had he remained a Liberal). He later omitted his membership of the New Party from his Who’s Who entry and made a serious contribution to public life as Food Controller for Scotland in 1950. Had UKIP been in existence in 1931 and offered Dudgeon a chance of remaining in Parliament, Dudgeon might just have taken it at that one point in his career.

John Pratt had been a Liberal MP from 1913 to 1922. By 1931 he was in desperate financial circumstances and looking for a route back into Parliament. Forced to sell his wife’s piano to make ends meet, he admitted that his problems were caused by ‘riotous living’ and that he had ‘lied and lied and lied’. Offered the prospect of a return to Parliament under UKIP colours, Pratt might well have been tempted.

The last possible contender was Air Vice-Marshal Donald Bennett. Bennett became one of the shortest-serving MPs of all time when he was elected unopposed as Liberal MP for Middlesbrough West in a by-election on 14 May 1945 only to lose the seat at the general election held on 5 July - just 73 days later. Bennett continued to court controversy in his post-war career, as he had in the RAF during the war. He was sacked as head of British South American Airways when he refused to ground his planes after several crashes. He became embroiled in court cases involving commercial litigation and taxes and he was sued for libel by another former Air Vice-Marshal who objected to Bennett’s revealing in a book that he had worn shorts to a meeting. Bennett took flight from the Liberal Party and eventually stood as a far-right National Party candidate in a by-election in Nuneaton in 1967. Between his departure from the Liberals and his far-right destination, Bennett could conceivably have been a convert to UKIP.

So, all in all, possibly as many as four Liberal or former-Liberal MPs - Bennett, Pratt and the two Cecils - Beck and Dudgeon - might conceivably have been tempted to join UKIP in the course of the 100 years. Whether this group would have been regarded as a great loss to the Liberal Party or a great catch for UKIP is another question.

You can read more about these characters and all the other defectors, both to and from the Liberal Party, in my book ‘Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910 to 2010 – a study of inter-party relations’, published by Manchester University Press.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Comparing the SDP and UKIP defections

Mass defections from Britain’s political parties are rare, but not unprecedented. So far, they have not proved fatal to the party which lost the defectors, nor have they resulted in the formation of a new party with long-term viability.

In the 1880s the Liberal Party lost a significant group of its MPs when the Liberal Unionists split from the party, in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The Liberal Unionists eventually merged with the Conservative Party in 1912. In 1931 the Liberals lost 24 MPs to the newly-formed Liberal Nationals, whose diminished rump eventually merged with the Conservatives in the 1960s.

More recently, in the 1980s, the Labour Party lost a significant number of defectors to the newly-formed Social Democratic Party (SDP). So, how does the scale of defections to UKIP compare to the SDP split and how worried should the other parties be?

The SDP attracted a total of 28 sitting Labour MPs and one Conservative. UKIP so far has attracted 3 Conservative MPs. Bob Spink resigned from the Conservatives to support UKIP in 2008. He did not resign his seat to cause a by-election, but he was defeated at the following general election in 2010. Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless both left the Conservatives this autumn to join UKIP and have resigned their seats to cause by-elections at Clacton and Rochester and Strood respectively. Douglas Carswell won a convincing victory at Clacton, but Rochester and Strood is regarded as a less UKIP-friendly constituency.

The SDP won a total of four by-elections - Crosby (November 1981), Glasgow Hillhead (March 1982), Portsmouth South (June 1984), Greenwich (February 1987). However, these were all newly-won seats. The only MP defecting to the SDP who resigned and re-contested his seat, Bruce Douglas-Mann, lost his by-election.

In terms of party membership, the SDP recorded 65,000 members at the end of 1981 compared to UKIP’s current figure of just under 40,000. In opinion polls the SDP peaked at 50.5%, compared to UKIP’s peak (so far) of 23%.

After disappointing general elections in alliance with the Liberals in 1983 (6 seats) and 1987 (5 seats), the SDP merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats.

So, far the scale of Conservative to UKIP defections is much smaller than the Labour to SDP exodus. UKIP may, of course, attract more defectors, but the momentum seems to have stalled. Had UKIP had another defector lined up, the press briefing at the end of the Conservative Party conference would have been the occasion to reveal the person. Expectations were raised and dashed. Further potential defectors may now await the result of the Rochester and Strood by-election.

Overall then, does UKIP pose a threat to the existence of the Conservatives, or any other party? The three main parties have all been in existence for over 100 years. This does not guarantee that they will survive indefinitely, but it does mean that they all have experience of recovery from serious set-backs.

The Liberal Party was reduced to just 5 MPs at its lowest point in the 1950s, but since recovered to a peak of 63 MPs. The Labour Party fell from 288 seats in 1929 to just 52 in 1931, but in 1945 it won the election by a landslide. After the SDP split, the Labour Party recovered and in 1997 won an even bigger landslide than 1945. The Conservative Party lost half its seats in 1997, but became the largest single party again in 2010.

In October 1930 the Conservatives, under Stanley Baldwin – arguably the most comparable Conservative leader to David Cameron – rallied after losing a by-election at Paddington South to a right-wing candidate from the Empire Free Trade Crusade, backed by newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook. In the event this was to be the Empire Crusade’s only by-election victory. Whether UKIP’s crusade will get the party any further remains to be seen, but on current evidence, the likelihood of an SDP-scale split seems remote. Despite the shock of the Paddington South by-election defeat, the Conservatives went on to be in power continuously from 1931 to 1945 – but always in a coalition. 

An earlier version of my article appeared on The Conversation

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Road to Clacton Pier - a new departure or a well-worn path?

UKIP won the Clacton by-election with a swing of 44.1%. It is certainly newsworthy as it gives UKIP the party’s first elected MP.

In terms of record by-election swings, the Clacton result is the second highest swing recorded. The highest was from Labour to the Liberals in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, where Simon Hughes achieved a swing of 44.2%.

If you look at a list of the highest by-election swings, all have been against the Labour or Conservative Party. Most of the record swings have been to minor parties – Liberals or Liberal Democrats, SNP, Respect and now to UKIP. So, in many respects the Clacton result is another near-record breaker in a long list of significant by-election swings from the two largest parties to a minor party. You have to go down the list to number 7, and as far back as the 1935 Liverpool Wavertree by-election, before you find a straight swing between the two largest parties appearing on the list. This was a swing of 30% from Conservative to Labour.

The trend for votes to move steadily away from the major parties is a long-established pattern, going back well over half a century. In the 1951 general election Labour and the Conservatives won a combined share of the vote of 96.8%. The drift away from these two parties has been fairly steady since then to only 65.1% in the 2010 election.

Smaller parties have been chipping away at the dominance of the two largest parties for a long time and by-elections have played a part in this process. The House of Commons now has a record number of parties represented – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, DUP, SNP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Alliance, Green, Respect and now UKIP – a total of 12 parties, plus three independents and the Speaker. In the 1950s there were just 4.

So, UKIP’s victory at Clacton is a significant result, but in many ways just another step along an established path.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

How much is a political defector worth?

When UKIP called a press briefing immediately after the end of the Conservative Party conference, weary journalists trooped down to Bristol in the expectation that UKIP was about to unveil another defector. In the event, the announcement was that UKIP was to receive a donation of £1m, rather than the £100,000 which had been trailed in the media earlier in the day. The journalists were underwhelmed. The difference of £900,000 was clearly not as headline-grabbing as a defector would have been.

So, if a defector would be worth more than £900,000, how much more? When Paddy Ashdown was Liberal Democrat leader he managed to oversee quite a few by-election victories and attracted some inward defectors. Under his leadership the party won by-elections at Eastbourne, Ribble Valley, Kincardine and Deeside, Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough and Saddleworth. The party also attracted two inward defectors who were sitting MPs – Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham, both from the Conservatives. In his diaries, Paddy Ashdown commented that an inward defector was the next best thing to a by-election victory.

So, the answer seems to be that a defector is worth somewhere between £900,000 and a by-election victory.