‘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, 28 April 2015

Conservatives go with 'Safety First' as election slogan

The 1929 general election was the first when women voted on the same terms as men.

The three major parties all seemed to be in contention. Lloyd George was leading the Liberal Party, armed with a library of policies more radical than those of his opponents, including the booklet ‘We can conquer unemployment’ – a far-sighted, but rather impractical, set of policies to reduce unemployment in an unfeasibly short time through road-building and other public works.

The Conservative Party literally took a safety first approach and fought the election under the slogan of ‘Safety First’.

The Labour Party had a manifesto fairly short on detail, but one of its key passages was entitled ‘The Old Bogey’, a rebuttal of Conservative scare stories about the dangers of a Labour government.

In the event the Conservatives had played it too safe, the Liberals too radical and the Labour Party was just reassuring enough.

The Liberals came out of the election with 59 seats – almost the same total as the Liberal Democrats today. The Conservatives won the most votes at 38.2%, compared to Labour’s 37.1%, but the Labour Party won the most seats - 288 - short of an overall majority, but 28 seats ahead of the Conservatives.

It was to be the first of three elections since 1918 where the party with the most votes did not win the most seats, the others being 1951 and February 1974.

The outcome was the second minority Labour government headed by Ramsay MacDonald.

In retrospect, it was actually a good election to have lost. By October of that year the world was sinking into depression as a result of the Wall Street Crash.

The Unluckiest Man in British Politics

Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman has been dubbed the 'Unluckiest Man in British Politics'
Journalist and social reformer, Masterman contested a by-election in Dulwich as the Liberal candidate in 1903, but lost. In the 1906 Liberal landslide he was elected for West Ham North and was re-elected in January 1910. At this stage his career was thriving. He published his well-known book The Condition of England and worked closely with Churchill and Lloyd George on the People's Budget, but in the general election in December 1910, his election was declared void.

Masterman was returned to parliament at a by-election in 1911, this time at Bethnal Green South West. In 1914 he was appointed to the Cabinet. This may not sound too unlucky, but under the rules at the time, newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and re-contest it. Masterman lost the resulting by-election. He tried again in a by-election at Ipswich, but again failed and had to resign from the cabinet.

Masterman eventually returned to the House of Commons in the 1923 general election, as MP for Manchester Rusholme, but he again lost his seat in the 1924 general election.

After this his health declined rapidly, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse. He died in 1927. However, his son, Neville, lived to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2012.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Winner Takes It All? – not necessarily in British politics

In 1980 when ABBA released ‘The Winner Takes It All’ this seemed like a fair reflection on British politics. The Conservative Party had won the most votes and the most seats in the 1979 general election and their party leader, Margaret Thatcher had become prime minister.

But does the First Past the Post system usually deliver the leader of the party with the most votes and the most seats into Number 10?

If we look back over the years since 1900, we can clearly see that this has not always been the case.

In the 1900 election the Conservatives won over 400 seats, but in 1905 they left office before the next general election. The Liberal leader Campbell-Bannerman became prime minister, although his party had fewer seats. In the 1906 election the Liberals won a landslide victory and normal First Past the Post service resumed with the Liberals having won the most votes and the most seats and Campbell-Bannerman remaining as prime minister.

However, it was not long before ‘abnormal’ conditions prevailed again. In the January 1910 election the Conservatives won the most votes, but the Liberals won the most seats and remained in office with the support of Labour and the Irish Nationalists. The next election in December 1910 left the abnormal situation in place and so it continued into the First World War.

In 1916 Lloyd George became prime minister of a coalition government. He was a Liberal, but not the Liberal Party leader. At the end of the war, the 1918 election delivered the premiership back to Lloyd George, who was still not the leader of the party with the most votes or seats.

Briefly from 1922 to 1924 the government was formed by the Conservatives, as the party with the most votes and the most seats and their leader served as prime minister.

But in 1924 the Labour Party formed their first government, without a majority of seats or votes. It lasted for ten months.

Between the end of 1924 and 1929 the Conservatives formed the government as the party which had won the most votes and the most seats, but the 1929 election heralded another ‘anomaly’. The Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald returned to power, but still with fewer votes than the Conservatives. In 1931 the second Labour government collapsed, but Ramsay MacDonald remained as prime minister of a National Government until 1935. In May 1940 Churchill, not the Conservative Party leader at the time, became prime minister, although he did assume the party leadership five months later.

From 1945 to 1951 Labour leader, Attlee served as prime minister as head of the party with the most votes and the most seats. But the 1951 election delivered the premiership back to Churchill even though the Conservatives had won fewer votes than Labour.

‘Normal’ service was then resumed from 1955 to 1974 with the leader of the party with the most votes and seats serving as prime minister. But after the February 1974 election Harold Wilson became prime minister, although Labour had won fewer votes in the election.

During the ABBA era and beyond the leader of the party with the most votes and the most seats has served as prime minister.

In total since 1900 we have had 25 years when the prime minister was not the leader of the party with the most votes and the most seats, so we should not be too surprised if this happens again next month.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Anniversary of one of Churchill's 5 defeats

For a successful politician, Winston Churchill actually clocked up a significant number of electoral defeats, failing to be elected on 5 occasions. Today is the anniversary of one of them – at Manchester North West in 1908.

Churchill was first elected at Oldham in 1900 as a Conservative. He defected to the Liberals in 1904, but did not fight a by-election on his change of party allegiance. He remained MP for Oldham until the 1906 election, when he transferred to Manchester North West.

In 1908 he was appointed to the Board of Trade. The rules then in force required that newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and face re-election. Churchill faced his electorate on 24 April 1908 and lost.

Typically, Churchill bounced back and was found a seat at Dundee just two weeks later. He represented this seat until 1922, when he was again defeated. This time he had to wait two years to make a comeback – at Epping.

In all, Churchill won 16 elections and lost 5.