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  1. Politics
15 September 2010

Keeping it in the family

There’s nothing that unusual about Miliband v Miliband

By Sholto Byrnes

That the Labour leadership contest seems destined to end in a race to the finish between David and Ed Miliband has excited many, some to the point of fever — such as the Observer‘s Tim Adams, who, in an entertaining piece a couple of Sundays ago, raised the examples of the Brothers Karamazov, Romulus and Remus and even Jacob and Esau (evidently Cain and Abel was a comparison too far).

However, the Labour Party has a great history of prominent politicians not necessarily owing their positions to family connection, but certainly being related to each other. In his 2006 study Britain’s Power Elites: the Rebirth of a Ruling Class, the historian Hywel Williams — an occasional NS contributor — details this most thoroughly. Parts of the relevant passage, which I’m going to quote in full, will be familiar, others not:

Roy Jenkins had a significant career start as the son of Arthur Jenkins, a Labour MP, who was close to Clement Attlee. Peter Mandelson’s grandfather was Herbert Morrison — a dominating party manager of post-war Labour London and a looming figure of consequence within the postwar Labour cabinet. Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, is the daughter of a former deputy chief whip as well as the niece of Alf Morris, a life peer and former minister whom she has now joined in the House of Lords. Hilary Armstrong is not just the Chief Whip, but is also the daughter of a long-serving Labour MP who also served in the Whips’ Office. Charles Clarke shows a political-administrative continuity at work, being the son of Otto Clarke, a permanent secretary with an invincible confidence in the rectitude of his own judgement.

When Bob Cryer died it seemed only natural that his widow should take his seat in the House of Commons, where her son also sat as a member until 2005. Hilary Benn, the Overseas Development Secretary, is the son of Tony Benn, and Gwyneth Dunwoody’s career starts with the fact that her father was Morgan Phillips, general secretary of the Labour Party (1944-62), while David Miliband is an august member of the Labour aristocracy, being the son of Ralph Miliband as well as the brother of Ed Miliband who in 2005 was elected the Labour MP for Doncaster North.

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The career of Llinos Golding (Baroness Golding of Newcastle-under-Lyme) is a fine paradigm of familial politics, since she is the daughter of Ness Edwards, the Labour MP for Caerphilly (1939-68), and succeeded her husband, John Golding, as the member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (1968-2001) having previously been his aide.

There are of course family connections on the Tory benches. George Osborne’s father-in-law, Lord Howell, is a Foreign Office minister and served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.

Bernard Jenkin may now be known better for his keen espousal of naturism than for the shadow cabinet, er, briefs, he held under Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague, but the Harwich MP’s father, Patrick Jenkin, was also a cabinet minister under Mrs T. The same goes (not the naturism) for the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, whose father, Angus, nicknamed “the Mekon”, had a two-year stint as paymaster general. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is the son of a former Tory MEP, and his brother Jo is the new MP for Orpington. (Advanced students of Johnsonology may like to refer to the NS cover story Brian Cathcart and I wrote in March 2008 — “Who is Boris Johnson?” — for a full explanation of how those Johnsons are related.)

These, however, Williams argues (or argued in 2006), are exceptions rather than the rule. “Among past and present members of the opposition front bench,” he wrote, “Nicholas Soames and Dominic Grieve are very rare examples of significant Conservative politicians who have been reared from Tory political families.” His view is that: “Beneath all the sentiment about what used to be referred to as ‘this great movement of ours’, there are some strikingly continuous facts of patronage and family connection which make New Labour the heir to the Hanoverian-Whiggish elites of the 18th century.”

That does not sound terribly like a compliment — or, at least, one cannot imagine a Labour politician publicly professing to take it as such. Worse for the Milibands, however, is the example of another political family in which two sons of a prominent father both served in the cabinet and both aspired to the premiership. Let us hope they do not follow in the footsteps of the Chamberlains: of Joseph, who helped destroy the Liberal Party, and of his sons Neville, forever remembered as the great appeaser of Hitler, and Austen — who had the distinction, until William Hague, of being the only Conservative leader in the 20th century not to become prime minister.

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