‘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

Sunday, 1 November 2015

William Wedgwood Benn's recipe for a healthy life

As a teetotaller, William Wedgwood Benn's health was preserved from the ravages of alcohol which affected so many politicians, including Asquith, Masterman, Clement Davies and John Smith. Benn was a tea drinker - but not to quite the extent of his son, Tony who was calculated to have drunk 29,000 gallons over the course of his life. The timing of Benn’s tea drinking may not have helped his overall well-being though, given that a good night’s sleep seems to correlate with good health. Benn used to take a thermos of tea to bed with him. He found that if he woke up in the night (typically at about 03.00), his mind was usually clear and he could have a productive thinking session, prolonged by the tea. As most people have found out though, this is not an ideal way to get back to sleep. As with most other aspects of his life, Benn kept detailed records of his health. In amongst mentions of ‘bad nights’, ‘coughs’ and ‘tight chest’ are more prosaic entries such as ‘left nostril closed’ and ‘slight vomiting’ [an unusual ailment, as for most people it tends to be more of an all-or-nothing occurrence], but there were other more positive entries, even past the age of eighty, such as ‘very well’ and ‘all night party at the Savoy did no harm’.

This is an extract from Political Wings, my biography of William Wedgwood Benn, first Viscount Stansgate, published by Pen & Sword

Friday, 21 August 2015

Corbyn for Leader – One Foot in the Grave for the Labour Party? Not necessarily

A left-wing Labour Party leader very close to his seventieth birthday, leading a divided party which had lost the previous election, trying to unseat a female Conservative prime minister. This was the situation in 1983 and it could be the situation in 2020, if Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour Party leadership and Theresa May takes over from David Cameron. Both are well within the realms of possibility.

What would happen then? In 1983 the Labour Party under Michael Foot went down to a crushing defeat. It is very tempting to assume that history would repeat itself in 2020.  The Conservative Party already seems confident that it would. Most of the press will try to draw parallels and hope for a repeat of 1983. The newspapers will be very hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, although, like Margaret Thatcher, he claims not to read them, and daily newspaper circulation is now less than half what it was in 1983.

More than ever we are aware of the dangers of predicting the future of British politics. The opinion polls failed to predict the outcome of the 2015 general election even days before the ballot. Former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King warned that the party implementing spending cuts after the 2010 election could be doomed to be out of power for a generation. Instead the spending cuts came to be seen by voters as prudent financial management and the Conservatives were chosen by the electorate to implement more of the same.

Many on the right of the Labour Party (including Tony Blair) have said that a Tony Blair-type leader is the only hope for Labour’s return to power. But, Tony Blair was successful at a time when the Conservative Party was failing to do its own job properly. He correctly identified an empty middle ground for Labour to occupy at that time. There is no vacancy there now.

Looking at the electoral positions of the parties in 2020, it is likely that the SNP will have passed its high-water mark at Westminster. Labour could only possibly lose one more seat to the SNP, but have plenty of scope to go up. The Liberal Democrats may begin to recover under Tim Farron’s leadership, but as they lost more seats to the Conservatives than to Labour at the last election, any recovery in seats may be more likely to come from the Conservatives than from Labour. UKIP achieved second place in many Labour-held constituencies in 2015, but were well short of threatening to take large numbers of seats from Labour. A Farage-led UKIP would no longer be a novelty and a more-electable replacement for Nigel Farage does not seem to be on the horizon. The Greens seem to be destined to continue their steady, but very slow, headway. The Labour Party’s performance in 2020 is likely to hinge on its success or failure against the Conservatives, and this could depend on two things - whether it splits, and whether the Conservative Party splits.

The Conservatives are riven on the issues of Heathrow expansion and, more importantly, Europe. They will have fought the EU referendum in two factions and will have to choose a new leader in the aftermath, if David Cameron keeps his promise to retire.

Labour perhaps has less at stake than it first seems in experimenting with a Corbyn leadership. There is no sure-fire election winner among the other three leadership candidates. If Jeremy Corbyn loses the next election he will almost certainly be replaced as Labour leader and a different, newer generation of potential leaders could be in the running. If Jeremy Corbyn wins the election for Labour, which is not unthinkable if his party remains united and the Conservatives split, then the Corbyn experiment may change the face of British politics to a position where there are multiple parties, each with a clear minority position. It may illustrate that voters look for authenticity more than a position on a left-right scale.

If a Corbyn-led Labour Party recovered somewhat at the next election, say better than Ed Miliband’s 232 seats and better than Gordon Brown’s 258 but not enough to win, the party would be left still out of power and with the trickiest of dilemmas. Should it move even further to the left? Should it try a different leader with the same brand of policies?

The greatest threat to the Labour Party could be a modest success for Jeremy Corbyn in 2020 and the greatest threat to the Conservatives remains Europe. Jeremy Corbyn would probably gracefully leave the scene if he lost the election, but Europe will not go away.

This article first appeared on Democratic Audit

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The only lasting impression - the colour of Lord Sewel's bra

A former politics lecturer has hit the headlines for allegedly wearing an orange bra, smoking a cigarette, snorting powder from a woman’s breasts and making rude comments about the prime minister. Bizarrely, this is threatening to cause a constitutional upheaval. John Buttifant Sewel’s behaviour has attracted so much attention because he was a member of the House of Lords, although he has now resigned.

The furore has once again stirred up a clamour for House of Lords reform. However, Lord Sewel’s behaviour has not raised any issue of great constitutional importance. The situation was very different in 1909, when the Conservative-dominated House of Lords blocked the Liberal government’s budget. This led to the 1911 Parliament Act, which curtailed the power of the House of Lords and prevented it obstructing money bills.

At this stage, a peer could only leave the House by dying or could be temporarily excluded through bankruptcy or imprisonment. An act of Parliament could also be brought in specifically to remove an errant lord, as was the case in 1917 with two lords who had supported the King’s enemies.

There are now many more ways to leave the Lords. In 1963 the Peerage Act allowed hereditary peers to disclaim their peerages for their own lifetime, but to enable their sons to resume the title and membership of the House of Lords. The first person to take advantage of the reforms was Labour MP Tony Benn, who had inherited a peerage on the death of his father, former Labour cabinet minister, the first Viscount Stansgate.

In 1999 Tony Blair’s government started a, still-unfinished, reform process by which most of the hereditary peers left the Lords. However, 92 places were reserved for hereditary peers (42 of them for the Conservatives), elected by their own party group. When Lord Ferrers died, the ensuing by-election in 2013 attracted a selection of 27 Conservative candidates for the 48 voters to choose from. Politicians are always arguing for more choice. They also tend to regard a high turnout at elections as a good thing and by this measure the 2003 Lords by-election following the death of Labour perr, Lord Milner was exemplary. All three eligible hereditary peers turned out to vote - 100% turnout.

The House of Lords Reform Act of 2014 allowed peers to retire or resign, as Lord Sewel has done. There is still no compulsion to retire at any set age or length of service. Lord Carrington, aged 96, is still a member of the House of Lords after 74 years’ service.

Had Lord Sewel not resigned, the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 allowing peers to suspend or expel members could have been employed.

Over the last century or so the volume of House of Lords reforms has increased, but the impact of each successive piece of legislation has been diminishing. The fact that a bra-wearing, powder-snorting incident involving one peer has triggered a new debate on further reforms suggests that the appetite for change is much greater than the level of agreement about what should be on the menu.

The expenses scandal of 2009 demonstrated that public opinion can be raised to boiling point over parliamentary misbehaviour, but little distinction was made in the media between serious fraud and accidental claims for single portions of dog food. Duck islands, dog food, orange bras and trouser presses make for better headlines than issues such as human rights or climate change.

In a parliamentary ‘coat-of-arms race’ David Cameron has managed to play the situation to his advantage. Citing his failure to pass reforms of the Lords to create a mainly-elected chamber during his coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, he has decided not to introduce any new legislation, but to even up representation among the parties in the second chamber by creating new Conservative peers.

In contrast to the situation in 1909, the Liberal Democrats now have 101 peers but only 8 MPs, while the Conservative Party with an overall majority in the Commons, has fewer life peers than the Labour Party. David Cameron, however, forgot to mention that the 2012 reforms failed when 91 of his own MPs voted against a three-line whip.

So far the Lord Sewel affair has led to the prospect of a further bloating of the House of Lords and a debate on its future, which all the major political parties seem to be content to lead nowhere. Meanwhile the media will be hoping for some more good headlines. For many people though the one fact which is likely to stick in their memory will be the colour of the bra. 

An earlier version of this article appeared on the Conversation.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cameron accused of Hokey Cokey on Europe

Prime minister David Cameron has to decide whether to suspend collective cabinet responsibility over the EU referendum in a bid to keep his fractious Conservative Party together. Normally ministers must abide by cabinet decisions, even if they do not agree with them, or they have to resign. David Cameron is considering the rarely used, and not always successful, device of allowing ministers to disagree in public and even to campaign on different sides of the debate.

The device was used in 1932 when the Liberal members of the National Government reached an ‘agreement to differ’ over the issue of tariffs, which the Liberals under Herbert Samuel could not support. The agreement only had temporary value, as the Liberals resigned from the government later in the year when tariffs were introduced.

The 2010 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition agreement included a provision for the Liberal Democrats to abstain on proposals for university tuition fees. The agreement to differ had little practical value. The tuition fee increase was implemented and in the 2015 election of the eight Liberal Democrat MPs who survived, four had voted for the tuition fees rise and four against.

At the recent G7 summit reporters were convinced that David Cameron had definitely said that ministers would be bound by collective responsibility over the EU referendum to be held in 2016 or 2017. He then clarified his position just a few hours later, saying that he had been misinterpreted and that collective ministerial responsibility only applied to the current stage of the renegotiations and that no decision had been made on collective responsibility during the referendum campaign itself.

Do the Hokey-Cokey

In the House of Commons, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn mocked the Conservative position, saying ‘members of the Cabinet who are for out read yesterday that they would be out unless they campaigned for in. Now it seems they might be in even though after all they are probably for out. In, out, in, out. It's the EU Tory Hokey Cokey’.

Hilary Benn’s analogy is apt, but applies more broadly than just to the Conservative cabinet. The Labour Party, and indeed the whole country, has turned about on Europe.

In 1975, under similar circumstances to today, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson released ministers from collective responsibility over whether to support his renegotiated terms for the UK’s continued membership of the EEC, the forerunner of the EU. The renegotiation had achieved few changes, but by a margin of 2 to 1, voters decided to remain with Europe.

Left Foot Out

Released from collective responsibility, several cabinet ministers campaigned for a no vote in 1975, including Hilary Benn’s father, Tony Benn. He was joined by Peter Shore and by others on the left of the Labour Party including Michael Foot who wanted out. Headline writers had almost as much fun with Foot’s position on the EEC as they did when he was appointed to a nuclear disarmament committee, which prompted the headline ‘Foot heads arms body’.

And you turn around

In 1975 the Conservative Party was more pro-European than the Labour Party. Now it’s the other way round. Then the east of England was more pro-European than the west and England was more pro-European than Scotland. Today these positions are all reversed.

Another significant difference between 1975 and today is that now there are politicians whose main purpose for being in politics is to get the UK to leave the EU. In 1975 those campaigning for a no vote were politicians from different parts of the political spectrum, but all of them had other interests. Tony Benn commented after being on the losing No side of the 1975 debate: ‘When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum’.

That’s what it’s all about

David Cameron must be hoping that the EU referendum will settle matters for another 40 years – at least within the Conservative Party, for that’s what the referendum is really about.

A version of my article above was first published by Democratic Audit.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Political Wings Launch Photos

 Hilary Benn with his grandfather's biography. 'A cracking read' he says.
 A Benn family reunion - three generations came to the launch
Steve Richards amused by the story of William Wedgwood Benn giving his children a ride on the lawnmower!

David, brother of Tony Benn and last surviving son of William Wedgwood Benn, tells the audience how his mother used to say that she considered that his father's 'existence was vital to her wellbeing, but his presence was not.'

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Thank You

Very many thanks to everyone who came to the launch of Political Wings last night. It was a wonderful evening and I couldn't have asked for a more appreciative audience.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Book Launch Event 23 June

On Tuesday 23 June at 18.30 at City University in Islington, I will be hosting an event to launch Political Wings, my biography of William Wedgwood Benn, first Viscount Stansgate.

Members of the Benn family, historians and journalists will be joining me. All are welcome to attend. There is no charge, but places need to be booked at:

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.