Sunday, May 05, 2013

GUEST POST Political defections: Storms of protest or signs of political climate change?

Dr Alun Wyburn-Powell, author of Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910-2010, looks at the history of defections from the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Everyone remembers examples of political defections, the most prominent being Winston Churchill’s ‘ratting’ and ‘re-ratting’ between the Conservative Party and the Liberals. But, Churchill was by no means alone; nor was he the most prolific defector.

Due to its position on the political spectrum, the Liberal Party has been either the donor or the recipient of most defectors. Well over 100 MPs and former MPs defected to or from the Liberal Party in the century since 1910.

With so many individuals leaving their party for another, I decided to research whether the defections were all one-off storms of protest, or whether collectively they were indicators of significant change in the political climate. I wanted to find out if there were common threads behind the reasons for the defections and any indicators suggesting who was likely to defect and who would remain loyal, when faced with the same set of circumstances.

I managed to find out the timing and reasons for all of the defections of MPs and former-MPs to and from the Liberals and Liberal Democrats from 1910 to 2010. Each individual defection was effectively the conclusion of an expert witness (the defector) on their party and its leader at a specific moment in time.

I identified characteristics which distinguished defectors from loyalists – defectors were disproportionately male, wealthier, more militaristic, more likely to be divorced, likely to have begun their careers at a younger age and were likely to come from a minority religion. Paddy Ashdown proposed a theory from his knowledge of international spying, that it was the ‘toffs’ who defected. I tested his theory and found it to hold true in politics too.

Overall, defection was a career-enhancing move, resulting in a higher chance of ministerial office and a peerage. Defectors from the Liberal Party went fairly equally to the right and to the left, but those who went to the Conservatives were much happier than those who went to Labour. Over half of those who defected to the Labour Party became unhappy with their new political home. This reveals an underlying compatibility between the partners in the 2010 coalition, which took many commentators and even the parties themselves by surprise.

The most prolific defector was not Churchill, but Edgar Granville, who lived to the age of 100 and had five defections to his name. Defection was rarely a comfortable experience, as is revealed in detail from the tales of each defector.

At the moment, the Liberal Democrats are enjoying the luxury of not being involved in the furore of defections – the Conservative Party is currently more prone to defections. Against the odds, Nick Clegg has a clean sheet, having suffered no defections of MPs or former-MPs during his leadership – a record shared only with Ming Campbell and David Steel. Lloyd George comes out as the most careless leader for losing defectors.

My research has now been published by Manchester University Press as Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910 to 2010 – a study of interparty relations. The foreword to the book is by Lord Andrew Adonis, former cabinet minister and himself a defector from the Liberal Democrats to the Labour Party.

Dr Alun Wyburn-Powell is an honorary research fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Leicester. His other publications include a biography of Clement Davies, Liberal Party leader from 1945 to 1956. He writes a blog on the connections between political history and current events and can be found on Twitter @liberalhistory.

1 comment:

Grahame Jordan said...

I would welcome a comment on the recent coalition position that may involve party activists 'jumping ship' over well publicised change of policies.