‘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

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

1945 – How Churchill won the war, but lost the election

It is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill and nearly seventy years since the 1945 election. Although he is remembered as a highly-successful politician, Churchill in fact failed to win a seat in five of the 21 contests which he fought, and as party leader he never led his party to win the most votes in an election. Despite this, he served as prime minister of three very different governments.

The first was the successful wartime coalition from May 1940 to May 1945. The second was the now almost-forgotten caretaker government, which was in power from May to July 1945 after the other parties withdrew from the coalition in advance of the general election. For thirteen of its members, the 1945 Caretaker Government gave them their only ministerial appointment. They included Ronnie Tree, son of Arthur Tree and Ethel Field, who was appropriately enough appointed as a minister in the Department of Town and Country Planning. One day David Cameron may look back and think that a two-month single-party caretaker government, with a brief reward of office for some of his overlooked MPs, might have been a good idea.

When the votes of the 1945 election were counted in July, Churchill’s Conservative Party had gone down to a crushing defeat at the hands of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. Should Churchill have been surprised by his defeat in 1945? Not really. Opinion polls were available and had consistently been showing a solid lead for the Labour Party. But how did Churchill manage to lose the 1945 election after leading the allies to victory in the war?

Among the excuses which the Conservatives offered was that the Army Bureau of Current Affairs had indoctrinated service personnel to vote Labour. This excuse was at least plausible, but also probably fairly flimsy. Parties tend to cling on to strange excuses after a poor result. After one by-election in the 1950s the Conservatives blamed the size of the constituency for their lacklustre performance, although presumably it was the same size for their opponents!

In 1945 the Conservatives lost the ‘ground war’. The party was in a weakened state on the ground with a depleted band of agents. The Conservatives, in contrast to the other parties, had stuck rigidly to the spirit and the letter of the wartime electoral truce. They had only held one party conference during the war and had put little effort into policy development and constituency organisation.

Public memory had a bearing on the outcome of the 1945 election. Lloyd George was still considered to be the man who won the First World War, but his record as prime minister after the war was dismal, with broken promises, unemployment, industrial unrest and threats to start another war. The popular conclusion was that good war leaders do not necessarily make good peacetime leaders. In 1945 the Conservatives were also still tarred with the taint of being the ‘Guilty Men’, so-called after a book which had appeared in 1940, blaming the party for the policy of appeasement which had failed to prevent the war.

British society had changed during the war and voters had become less class-bound. Evacuation of urban children to rural areas, service of all classes in the armed forces, and civilians sharing bomb shelters with strangers, had all led to a new degree of social mixing. After the First World War many people had wanted a return to life as it had been. After the second, most people wanted a complete break with the past. The forward-looking 1945 Labour pledge: ‘Let us face the future’ generated more enthusiasm that the Conservatives’ plea to let Churchill ‘finish the job’.

Churchill bore much personal responsibility for the failure of the Conservatives’ election campaign, including mis-handling a party election radio broadcast in which he claimed that the Labour Party would have to employ a form of ‘Gestapo’ to implement its policies. Labour leader, Clement Attlee, a moderate and unassuming man, had been responsible for much of Britain’s domestic policy during the war – exactly the area on which most people wanted the post-war government to concentrate. Labour ministers had proved themselves capable in key domestic roles. Although all the parties supported the proposals of the Beveridge Report, the Labour Party was more enthusiastic about its implementation than the Conservatives.

After his 1945 defeat, Churchill remained party leader and led the Conservatives into the following general election in February 1950. But he lost again. However, he was given one more opportunity and he did win the following election in 1951 – at least in terms of seats. The Conservatives won fewer votes but more seats than Labour, and went on to form a government over which Churchill presided for three and a half years until he retired at the age of 80. He survived another ten years and died on 24 January 1965.

A shorter version of my article above appeared on the Conversation:

Monday, 19 January 2015

Ten lords who went a-leaping

Political defections usually hit the headlines, but sometimes parliamentarians can defect without anyone even noticing. Most people think of a typical parliamentary defector as an MP crossing the floor of the House of Commons to join a rival party, as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless did in moving from the Conservatives to UKIP. Churchill is also widely remembered for his ratting and re-ratting between the Conservatives and Liberals.

However, with the growth of multi-party politics, many defections do not necessarily involve the symbolic crossing the floor from government to opposition benches, or vice versa. A defection between two opposition parties does not involve crossing the floor, nor does a transfer between parties in a governing coalition.

There have also been examples of hybrid candidates, such as the Constitutionalists in 1924 who temporarily straddled two parties – Liberal and Conservative. Labour and Co-op MPs, including Ed Balls, carry two party labels. The Co-operative Party was established in 1917, but since 1927 has allied itself, but not merged, with the Labour Party.

Party allegiance is usually defined as being in receipt of a party’s whip (a set of briefing papers), but this can leave room for doubt. A whip can be sent and received, but not wanted. There have been examples where an MP’s party allegiance is no longer clear, as was the case with Cecil L’Estrange Malone in 1920, whose constituency chairman had to write and ask him to which party he belonged.

So far, we have only looked at the House of Commons. If it is not always easy to be certain of an MP’s party allegiance, for members of the House of Lords it can be much more difficult still. 

The House of Lords effectively has three sides - not just government and opposition benches, but also cross-benches. There are currently 176 cross-benchers peers, organised to some extent as a group, but not taking any party whip. Some senior Church of England bishops (currently 24) also sit in the House of Lords. They do not belong to any political party or grouping and are not considered to be cross-benchers either. Peers do not have to stand in general elections under a party banner or send out material to constituents. Many lords rarely attend parliament and do not hold ministerial or party office, so there is little evidence of their party allegiance (if any).

Sometimes when lords go a-leaping from one party to another they do cause a bit of a stir, such as the transfers from the Conservatives to UKIP by Lord Stevens of Ludgate, by Lord Willoughby de Broke and by Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

But others can go unnoticed at the time. Robert Munro was a Liberal MP until 1922. He then went to the House of Lords as Baron Alness (the change of name making his career harder to follow) and eventually in 1945 appeared in Churchill’s Caretaker Government, suggesting that he considered himself a Conservative by then, although he never announced a change of party allegiance.

Lord Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader, is now a Conservative member of the House of Lords, although the two parties are now separate.

Then there are peers with hereditary titles, where succeeding generations take a different party whip from their forebears. Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin went to the Lords on his retirement, but his son Oliver, who became the second Earl Baldwin, took the Labour whip. The current (fourth) Earl Baldwin is a cross-bencher. In the opposite direction, the current Lord Attlee, grandson of Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, is a Conservative. Viscount Tenby, grandson of Liberal prime minister Lloyd George and son of a Conservative peer, is a cross-bencher. Lord Trefgarne is a Conservative peer, although he is the son of George Garro-Jones, who was a Liberal, then Labour, then a Liberal again. Viscount Simon, a Labour peer, is the grandson of the first Viscount, who was a Liberal and later a Liberal National politician. 

So, although these ten lords went a-leaping, most of them leapt in the dark. Hardly anyone noticed. 

A version of this article first appeared on the Conversation