‘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, 23 May 2015

Unlucky Day for Unluckiest Man in British Politics

Today is the anniversary of one of the unluckiest days for the politician dubbed ‘the unluckiest man in British politics’ – Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman.
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. But in the next election in December 1910, his election was declared void.

Masterman was returned to parliament at another 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 in February 1914. He tried again in a by-election at Ipswich on this day in 1914, 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.

So 23 May 1914 stands as one of the unluckiest days in the career of the very talented, but very unlucky, Charles Masterman.

Monday, 18 May 2015

How often are cabinet ministers unseated at elections?

The 1997 general election is probably best remembered for its ‘Portillo moment’, when John Major’s Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo lost his seat at Enfield Southgate. But he was not alone. A bumper crop of seven cabinet ministers lost their seats at that election. This was the largest haul since 1906.

The previous record was in 1945 when the Conservatives went down to their landslide defeat at the hands of their former coalition partners, the Labour Party. Five Conservative cabinet ministers lost their seats in that election, including Harold Macmillan. However, he later returned and became prime minister.

The 2015 election ranks next with the losses of Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Ed Davey from the Liberal Democrat ranks in the cabinet and several other senior ministers including David Laws, Simon Hughes and Lynne Featherstone. The Conservative ministers from the cabinet all escaped unscathed and David Cameron continues as prime minister. This election was also remarkable for the loss of some of the Labour Party’s big beasts including Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander.

Going down in a group provides some consolation compared to an individual defeat. Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman who helped his party to a surprise victory in the 1992 election against the trend of the opinion polls, lost his seat at Bath. The 1992 election bears strong similarities to 2015, with opinion polls putting the Labour and Conservative parties neck and neck during the campaign, only for John Major’s Conservatives to win the actual contest with an overall majority of 21 seats. 

However, by the end of the parliament this majority had been eroded by defections and by-election defeats. Major’s party was split, primarily over Europe. David Cameron’s joy at winning may well be tempered by the memory of the slow public demise of John Major’s authority and his defeat in the following general election.

The defeat of Patrick Gordon-Walker at the 1964 election was notorious. He was appointed Foreign Secretary in the new Labour government although he lost his seat at Smethwick in a bitter contest tainted by racial slurs. He remained in the cabinet until he tried and failed to be re-elected in a by-election. He then had to resign from the cabinet.

Perhaps the saddest case was that of Charles Masterman, who has been dubbed the ‘Unluckiest Man in British Politics’. Journalist and social reformer, Masterman was elected in the 1906 Liberal landslide for West Ham North and was re-elected in January 1910. 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. He was returned to parliament at a by-election in 1911. In 1914 he was appointed to the Cabinet. 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. His health deteriorated, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse, and he died in 1927.

The biggest beast of all though, Winston Churchill, was defeated when he had to contest a by-election on his appointment to the cabinet in 1908. Nevertheless, he soon found another seat. During his lengthy career, Churchill suffered a total of five defeats in his 21 contests. This may be some consolation to those big beasts felled in the 2015 election, although for some there is unlikely to be a resurrection.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the Conversation

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

How John Major lost his Majority

Against expectations and opinion poll predictions, John Major managed to win a 21 seat majority for the Conservative Party in the 1992 election, gained the most votes any leader has for any party before or since and won a personal majority of over 36,000 votes in his Huntingdon constituency. 

While serving briefly as Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming premier, Major had persuaded Margaret Thatcher to allow the Pound to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) – the forerunner of the euro. In September 1992, just five months after the election victory, the Pound was forced out of the ERM. In reaction, the Conservative Party became more euro-sceptic and less-disciplined, its economic policy had to be re-written and Major's reputation sank.

Despite vigorous and visible attempts to control his party (including Major’s resorting to resigning and re-contesting the leadership) the Conservative majority in Parliament leaked away, leaving Major running a minority government as he limped towards defeat in 1997.

Four Conservative MPs died and their seats were won by Liberal Democrats in by-elections (Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough & Saddleworth). Four others died and their seats were won by other parties (Dudley West, Staffordshire South East and Wirral South by Labour, Perth & Kinross by the SNP). 

Two Conservative MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats (Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham). Alan Howarth defected from the Conservatives to Labour and George Gardiner defected to the Referendum Party. If the four defectors had remained in the party, the Conservatives would still have held a fragile majority in parliament.

After his election victory, David Cameron must be wondering what could possibly go wrong?

Is it a good idea to challenge an election result?

It has been reported that George Galloway has started legal proceedings to challenge the result of the election in his former constituency of Bradford West, where his Labour opponent was declared the winner with a majority of 11,420.

What does history tell us about the success of those who challenge election results?

Since 1923 only three mainland election results have been overturned by the court. The most recent was the Oldham East and Saddleworth result from the 2010 general election. The defeated Liberal candidate, Elwyn Watkins, launched a challenge to the election of the Labour candidate Phil Woolas. The election result was declared void and Woolas was barred from standing again for three years. However, the resulting by-election was won by the replacement Labour candidate, Debbie Abrahams – a court victory, but not an election victory for the challenger.

In the 1997 general election the Liberal Democrat candidate, Mark Oaten, was declared the winner by a margin of two votes. Gerry Malone, the defeated Conservative challenger successfully applied to have the election declared void. However, in the resulting by-election Oaten beat Malone by the somewhat increased majority of 21,556 – a resounding reaffirmation of the election result and an end to the political career of the challenger.

In 1960 Labour MP for Bristol South East, Tony Benn inherited a peerage, when his father, Viscount Stansgate (formerly William Wedgwood Benn) died. In those days a peerage debarred the holder from sitting in the Commons and Benn was forced to leave, even though he did not wish to go to the House of Lords. Tony Benn tried unsuccessfully to rid himself of the unwanted peerage, but at that time there was no mechanism for doing so. A by-election was called. Tony Benn stood again in the by-election and received the most votes. However, his defeated Conservative challenger, Malcolm St Clair, had the result overthrown by the court and was declared the winner, even though he had been closer to losing his deposit than to winning a majority. Tony Benn then embarked on a campaign to have the law changed. In May 1963 the Peerage Act was passed, paving the way for hereditary peers to renounce their titles and their seats in the House of Lords and enabling them to contest seats in the Commons. Tony Benn became the first peer to renounce his title under the Peerage Act, when it became law. Malcolm St Clair resigned the Bristol seat, precipitating another by-election, which Tony Benn won – a temporary victory for St Clair, the challenger in this case, as he held the seat from 1961 to 1963.

These examples suggest that challengers don't tend to reap much electoral benefit.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

A Benn in every election since 1892, except two

The 1945 and 1950 general elections have been the only elections since 1892 (over thirty elections) when a member of the Benn family did not stand. Even then the family was represented in the Lords by William Wedgwood Benn after his enoblement as the first Viscount Stansgate and Tony Benn’s first victory was in a by-election only nine months after the 1950 general election. 

Sir John Benn stood in all elections from 1892 to December 1910. His second son, William Wedgwood Benn stood in all those from 1906 to 1935. His second son, Tony Benn stood in all from 1951 to 1997 and his second son, Hilary Benn has contested all the elections since then, with his niece, Emily Benn also standing in 2010 and 2015.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Will 2015 be another 1923 for the Conservatives?

At the 1923 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 a three-way equal 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" of a Labour government.

Asquith was right in the sense that the first Labour government was not dangerous - indeed it was safe, proper, unadventurous and pretty much 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.

The precedent of 1923 is pretty scary for all parties.