Lewis Baston is a writer on politics, elections, history and corruption. He is Senior Research Fellow at Democratic Audit, and former director of research at the Electoral Reform Society.
How did you get to be a political analyst and commentator?
There isn’t really a career path for this sort of thing – my career has resembled that of a toad jumping between lily pads across a pond. But it keeps life interesting.
During the 1992 election I accompanied David Butler on some of his election tours around Britain. David was writing a book about the election, as he had at every election since 1951, and I played a small part in helping. After that, I became David’s assistant and helped to archive his records of 35 years of conversations with leading politicians. From 1994 until 1997 I was ‘assistant biographer to the Prime Minister’, i.e. Anthony Seldon’s principal researcher on his biography of John Major, and after that historical adviser to the television production company Blakeway Associates on the Major years, ‘sleaze’ and empire. Since then I have worked in academia (Kingston University 1998-2003) and at the Electoral Reform Society (2003-10). Since 2005 I have been a fairly frequent contributor to the Guardian online and in print on elections and polls, and have written for several other publications.
Where do you come from?
I was born and raised in Southampton and went to local state primary and comprehensive schools before going to Oxford (Magdalen and Nuffield Colleges). My parents are both originally from the West Country but have lived in Southampton since the 1960s. My father is an academic mathematician, and my mother has served (1993-2010) as an elected City councillor, so it’s not that surprising that academia and politics have both featured in my own professional life.
Who has most influenced your work?
I have a huge debt of gratitude to David Butler, for his wise counsel on many matters, his enthusiasm for elections and democracy, and for demonstrating that it is possible to be on good, confidential terms with people across the party spectrum. Anthony Seldon is an important influence in some of the same respects, and his determination to get projects finished is an awe-inspiring example. My prose and my attitudes are influenced by Bill Johnson, Michael Hart and Colin Frampton, inspirational teachers all of them.
What are your own political views?
I am a long-standing member of the Labour Party and make no secret about that. When I write comment pieces I do sometimes show my party colours and the underlying ideas – rationality, equality, justice, liberalism and democratic reform – that keep me anchored somewhere on the centre-left of the political waterfront.
Are you a Labour propagandist, then?
Certainly not. When I write analysis pieces or private research for clients, about ideas or electoral prospects, rigorous neutrality is the order of the day. I have written and researched successfully with Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour and non-party political people and organisations. I believe that many people in most parties are inspired by genuine beliefs and an ethic of public service, and I can deal professionally with ideas and work from across the spectrum. I see no contradiction between this approach and rejecting any co-operation with racist or anti-democratic organisations.
What are your non-political interests?
I travel a lot; the current count of countries visited I think stands at 36. Eastern Europe is particularly interesting although I have also travelled to Argentina, Vietnam, South Africa, the US and Japan. I am also interested in social and cultural history, and have an unfulfilled (and by now impossible) ambition to be an architect that has rubbed off into an interest in buildings. One day I will write a crime novel. I love maps, old and new. I love my friends and my family. I dote on my two cats, Oskar and Carmen.
Which pieces of work do you regard with particular pride?
The best work I have done is, I think, Reggie, my biography of Reginald Maudling. It was a very challenging project that took five years, and was at the same time an orthodox political biography, placing him very much in his time, but also a piece of investigative reporting and a psychological autopsy of a fascinating, flawed man. I also, in a piece of analysis for a major client, correctly predicted that Labour would get a majority of 66 in the 2005 election (the errors in individual seat projections were self-cancelling).
Which pieces of work are the biggest regrets?
I wish I had put a bet on a Labour majority of 66 in 2005. Apart from that, I probably got Hungary wrong in something I wrote in 2006; I was over-impressed by a lively, competitive two party election in a region where apathy usually reigns, and failed to note the unreality of the bidding war between the parties to promise ever more impossible things.