‘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, 6 December 2014

Jeremy Thorpe's bust

Jeremy Thorpe is best remembered as the only British political party leader to have gone on trial for conspiracy to murder. He was acquitted, but the circumstances leading to his trial were so bizarre that they have overshadowed almost everything else about his career, including his jumping over people’s garden gates to deliver leaflets, his campaigning by hovercraft and leading the Liberals to several spectacular by-election victories.

I went to interview Jeremy Thorpe at his home in London in 2001 when I was researching my biography of Clement Davies, the Liberal leader immediately after the Second World War. Poor old Clem had a difficult life. Three of his four children died at the age of 24 in unrelated incidents and Clem was an alcoholic – a fact vehemently denied by some of his former colleagues, but confirmed by his family. Despite all his problems, Clem Davies did hold the Liberal Party together so that there was something left to lead. Clem was succeeded by Jo Grimond and then in turn by Jeremy Thorpe from 1967 to 1976.

By the time I met him, Jeremy Thorpe had been affected by Parkinson’s disease for over twenty years. His voice was barely more than a whisper and he walked with the aid of two sticks. He lived with his second wife, Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Erwina Wilhelmine, formerly the Countess of Harewood, known simply as Marion. She died earlier this year and Jeremy died this week at the age of 85.

Their house must have been one of the most expensive addresses in London. It left a lasting, or rather several lasting, impressions on me. My first impression had plenty of time to develop. I was shown into a huge square room full of antiques, books, ornaments and dust. There were beautiful cabinets, but with cracked glass in some of the doors. There was a bust of Jeremy on a desk. (Incidentally, where should one keep one’s own bust?) The dust and the bust were the overriding memories. Time passed, maybe twenty minutes, no-one appeared and I began to look around for the skeletons of previous visitors. Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I looked into the next room. It was almost identical to the first – book, antiques, dust and no sign that anyone had been in there for years.

Eventually I was shown up to Jeremy’s study on the first floor – a small, brightly-lit room with Formica furniture, resembling an examination room at a clinic more than a study in a luxurious house at one of London’s grandest addresses. Jeremy was wary, but helpful and courteous. I think I managed to catch most of what he said.

Next I visited Emlyn Hooson, a parliamentary colleague of Jeremy’s. Emlyn had entered Parliament as Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire at the by-election caused by Clem Davies’s death in 1962. By chance Emlyn ended up being the first person to hear the full story of Jeremy’s alleged relationship with Norman Scott, which set off the chain of events ending at the Old Bailey. Norman Scott turned up at the House of Commons, asking to see the most senior person available from the Liberal Party. Emlyn Hooson fitted the bill, as the only one of the party’s MPs who could be found in the building. Emlyn listened politely, but incredulously, to a story of a gay relationship (illegal at the time in the early 1960s) which had gone wrong.

Eventually, Norman Scott’s Great Dane dog, Rinka, was shot dead on Exmoor by an airline pilot, letters written by Jeremy to Norman appeared in the press, including one with the immortal line ‘Bunnies can and will go to France’. A plot was alleged that involved Jeremy Thorpe conspiring with others to murder Norman Scott. The case was delayed while Jeremy fought and lost his seat in the 1979 general election. He was cleared on all charges, but his subsequent attempts at rehabilitating his career and entering the House of Lords all met with rebuff. He did publish a fragmentary memoir, which glossed over pretty much everything about the trial, but which did reveal another claim to fame. It turns out that Jeremy Thorpe was also the only party leader whose mother was a horsemeat butcher (during the war).

It all leads me to think that had the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (which decriminalised homosexuality) been passed earlier, all of this could have been avoided, Rinka could have lived out her dog’s life, and just think how useful Jeremy Thorpe’s expertise could have been in Parliament during the horsemeat scandal.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

UKIP policies could increase immigration

UKIP’s policies could actually cause an increase in immigration. In view of Nigel Farage’s statement (apparently contradicting Mark Reckless) that UKIP immigration policies would not be retrospective, many EU migrants would be likely to rush to the country before the controls were implemented.

Migrants who had come to the UK temporarily might not leave, if they thought that they might not be able to come back again.

Migrants who were still allowed to come to the UK would on average come from further away and therefore be more likely to want to stay longer, bring families or start families in the UK.

Under UKIP’s policies, with a withdrawal from the EU, the outflow of mainly older British people, especially to Spain and France would reduce or could even be reversed.

The current system of migration and border control does not work well. There are estimated to be around 500,000 illegal immigrants in the UK, but no-one knows the real figure. The system is still very porous, even after successive governments have tried to improve the system. Illegal immigrants and gangs would be more likely to exploit the creaking system as it would be under added strain.

And then there are UKIP’s climate change policies. The impact of uncontrolled climate change could dwarf all the other issues, when it comes to migration. Few people would leave Britain if the climate became warmer and sea levels rose. However, virtually uncontrollable surges of refugees could be displaced by drought, storms, floods, drinking water shortages and rising sea levels in countries such as Bangladesh and parts of Africa. Many could seek refuge in the UK.

Has the UKIP tide turned?

Will Rochester and Strood come to be seen as the turning of the tide for UKIP? The turn of a tide is always difficult to spot at the time. Waves come and go, but eventually the direction becomes clear.

The peak support in a national opinion poll for UKIP so far is 25% in the Survation poll on 10 October 2014. Survation tend to show the highest figures for UKIP support among the polling companies, but their more recent polls have shown UKIP support below the peak at 23%. Populus tend to show the lowest levels of UKIP support. Their peak figure was 15% and their most recent poll showed 11% support for UKIP. The recent trend in UKIP support from all the major polling companies is down, not up.

The peak of 25% UKIP support compares to the peak for the Liberal Democrats of 34% before the 2010 election and 50.5% for the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1981.

The scale of defections to UKIP is still much smaller than those to the SDP in the 1980s. The SDP received 28 sitting Labour MPs and one Conservative.

The history of new parties is one of fragility. The British Union of Fascists, the SDP, the New Party, Veritas, Common Wealth and the Referendum Party all came and went. UKIP has shown a tendency to fragment. Of the 13 UKIP MEPs elected in 2009, five (38%) had left the party by the time of the 2014 European election.

Overall, by-election victors who capture a seat from another party have on average around a 50% rate of retaining the seat at the following general election. The opinion poll from Lord Ashcroft completed on 10 November showed UKIP on course to win the Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November, but likely to lose the seat at the general election in May 2015.

It is not easy to spot the change in a tide. But tides do tend to turn at some point.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Is Ed Miliband Doomed?

Doomed can be defined as unavoidably destined for failure.

If winning an overall majority at the next election is the only outcome to be regarded as a success, then it is highly likely that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband (and all the other party leaders) are heading for failure. The opinion polls point to another hung parliament, as at the 2010 election.

Success, in the current circumstances should more realistically be defined as emerging as prime minister, whether it is with an overall majority, a viable minority government or as head of a coalition. This definition gives both Ed Miliband and David Cameron a realistic prospect of success.

Under this definition, one of the two - Miliband or Cameron - will almost certainly succeed and the other will fail, but which one? Mathematically, the prospects for each look fairly similar. Opinion poll ratings for the Conservatives and Labour are pretty much neck and neck, but moving in the Conservatives’ favour.

However, the current boundaries and distribution of votes favour the Labour Party over the Conservatives. Labour has more urban seats with lower turnouts, smaller electorates and smaller majorities, so the party’s votes tend to translate at a better exchange rate into seats.

These factors have been shown to work in practice when Labour won 355 seats in 2005 with 35.2% of the vote, while the Conservatives won 36.1% of the vote in 2010, but only achieved 306 seats.

So, the distortions in the system could compensate Labour for being behind in terms of votes. If the total number of seats for Labour and the Conservatives are more or less equal, then the next prime minister may well be the person best able to form a coalition. David Cameron has proved that he can do this, but his party do not want him to do it again. Labour on the other hand, although historically a more coalition-averse party, would have a greater willingness to form a coalition and probably a wider range of potential coalition partners to choose from.

Ed Miliband’s weaknesses could turn into strengths in building a coalition. A modest, consensual and self-effacing leader without too much dogmatic attachment to particular policies could well be a coalition-maker.

So, the short answer is No, Ed Miliband is not doomed. He may yet fail, but between here and success or failure are intentions which have to be turned into votes, votes that have to be translated into seats and, potentially, a coalition-building exercise. It is still perfectly feasible to imagine Ed Miliband just clearing each of these hurdles.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

John Lewis – never knowingly underhand

Employment blacklisting is not new – probably dating back at least to the First World War. One of the more surprising organisations to attempt to employ it was the John Lewis Partnership, as I found out in documents at the Parliamentary Archives, while I was researching for my forthcoming biography of William Wedgwood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate.

The John Lewis Partnership is generally highly-regarded for its service, partly as a result of the motivation of its workers who are partners in the business and who receive a share of the profits. They are also widely consulted on issues affecting the running of the business, which operates the John Lewis and Waitrose shops.

On 7 May 1949 the John Lewis Partnership’s house newspaper, the Gazette, carried a report that Colin Thornton-Kemsley, described elsewhere as the Partnership’s Director of Public Relations, who was also a National Liberal MP (effectively a Conservative), had proposed to the Central Management of the John Lewis Partnership that ‘all present Partners and future applicants for membership of the Partnership be required to sign a declaration that they are neither members of the Communist Party, nor in sympathy with the doctrines of that Party.’

There were, in 1949, two democratically-elected Communist MPs in the House of Commons. The John Lewis Partnership would effectively have been saying that someone who was acceptable as an MP, involved in issues of national security and finance, would not have been an acceptable person to sell buttons in a John Lewis shop.

The proposal raised some interesting ethical debates. It was democratically discussed within the business, but anyone who was blacklisted could have lost their job. This might have applied to someone who voted for one of the democratically-elected Communist MPs, as that voter presumably could have been deemed to be sympathetic to the Communist Party’s doctrines. Looked at another way, workers would have been put under pressure about how they voted, on pain of losing their job if it became known that they voted for certain candidates.

Viscount Stansgate raised the matter in the House of Lords and, from the evidence I have seen, the proposal never seems to have been implemented.

At least the John Lewis Partnership was open and democratic about its proposal and all partners had an opportunity to express their opinion.

Never knowingly underhand!