The 2016 Labour leadership election in comparative perspective

Scott Pruysers Bill_Cross2 photo JB-2015-2

The Labour Party’s current leadership crisis is in part a product of its inclusive rules for leadership elections. In this post Scott Pruysers, William Cross and Jean-Benoit Pilet consider these rules in comparative perspective. Drawing on a study of more than 70 parties from 13 countries they show that the Labour Party’s leadership election rules are somewhat unusual in being highly inclusive, whilst also affording parliamentarians a special role as gatekeepers. Some members of Labour’s parliamentary party may regret not taking the gatekeeper function more seriously in 2015.

As a result of a landslide vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn among his parliamentary colleagues (172 to 40), the Labour Party is in the process of selecting a party leader for the second time in two years (a relatively rare occurrence in leadership politics). The results of what can be labelled as a ‘semi-open primary’ between incumbent party leader Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith will be announced on September 24.

The rules for the current leadership election, similar to those used to select Corbyn in 2015, are relatively straightforward. Corbyn, as the sitting party leader, is automatically included as a contestant in the leadership election. Challengers, by contrast, are required to be ‘nominated’ by at least 20 per cent of the parliamentary party/European parliamentary party (i.e., MPs and MEPs). Once nominated, voting is open to dues paying party members, affiliated supporters (members of an affiliated trade union or socialist society), and registered supporters. More than 640,000 party members and supporters are eligible to cast a ballot.

While there are some minor barriers to participation – registered supporters, for example, must pay £25 to be eligible to vote – the entire process is rather inclusive. Interested individuals need only pay their fee and register on time in order to cast their ballot for the Labour leader. How common is the UK Labour leadership selection method, and how open and inclusive is the selection process when we put it in a comparative perspective?

Although parties all over the world have engaged in processes of internal party democratisation, few have gone as far as the Labour Party when it comes to the selection of party leaders. According to Pilet and Cross’s comparative work on the subject, which studied more than 70 parties from 13 countries between 1965 and 2012, a majority of parties still select leaders through delegated conventions. While such methods are not entirely exclusive, ordinary party members do not typically play a significant role. In fact, roughly 70 per cent of parties do not provide a direct or unmediated role for party members (or supporters for that matter).

While selection by the grassroots party membership is the second most common selection method (27 per cent), very few parties have opened up their selection processes further to allow non-members (i.e., registered supporters or affiliates) to vote. As of 2012, for instance, less than three per cent of the parties examined by Pilet and Cross allowed non-member supporters or voters to participate (this includes the Liberal Party in Canada and the Partito Democratico in Italy). In this regard, the selection method adopted by Labour is somewhat unusual. While some parties have continued to democratise further since 2012, parties adopting  primaries are still in the minority.

 Table 1: Leadership selectorates (as of 2012)

Selectorate N Percentage
All voters 2 2.8
Party members


Conference delegates 36 50.7
Party council 6 8.5
Other (single leader, etc.) 2 2.8
Mixed 2 2.8
Parliamentary party 4 5.6
Total 71 100

Source: Pilet and Cross (2014).

While the process adopted by Labour is indeed inclusive, allowing members and supporters to directly participate, the role of the parliamentary party in screening candidates should not be overlooked. The entrenched and formal role to limit who members/supporters will ultimately be able to vote for is an important one. The infamous William Marcy (Boss) Tweed, of New York’s Tammany Hall, captured the importance of such a role when he said ‘I don’t care who does the electing as long as I do the nominating.’ While the votes of parliamentarians will count the same as any ordinary party member or supporter, their role as gatekeepers can shape the dynamics of the election. Nor is a special role for the parliamentary party inevitable. Many of the parties included in the table above provide their members with voting authority yet do not include any privileged position for the parliamentary party group (PPG). For example, the Canadian parties, all of whom invite their grassroots members to vote directly for the leader, do not require candidates have any sign of support from the PPG.

While dividing authority between the two groups is not the most common approach, it is one recently adopted by parties in other parliamentary systems such as Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.  In these parties, the process is similar to the ‘old’ Labour electoral college method of dividing up vote shares.  Of course, the UK Conservatives also provide a privileged position to the PPG with parliamentarians narrowing the field to two candidates before the membership votes. Much to their later regret, it appears some members of the Labour PPG did not take their gatekeeper role seriously in facilitating Corbyn’s 2015 candidacy even though he was not their preferred candidate.

Given what we know about the rules, what can the literature tell us about this and similar elections? Recent evidence suggests that when the election includes members as the selectorate, the average number of candidates is higher than when less inclusive selectorates decide. In this case, the presence of two candidates in the UK Labour election is considerably below the average of 3.5 for similar elections held by other parties. Thus, at the outset of the campaign we might have expected more candidates. However, given the context of this contest, it is not entirely surprising that the field of candidates is limited. As something akin to a referendum on Corbyn, many preferred a straight two-way contest as evidenced by MP Angela Eagle’s withdrawal from the race in order to endorse Smith as a ‘unity’ challenger against Corbyn.

What does the comparative data suggest in terms of the competitiveness of the result?  Recent research reveals that elections in which party members are in charge of selecting a new leader are more competitive than selection by convention delegates or party council, but less competitive than selection by the PPG. More than half of the time, the margin of victory is less than 25 per cent when party members are the selectorate. Given the participatory nature of the UK Labour leadership election, the comparative data suggests a relatively close race.

In many ways, the Labour leadership election, with the presence of the incumbent leader, is an unusual one. The process combines a special role for the party’s MPs/MEPs, while also being inclusive and participatory.  The real tension lies in striking the correct balance between the influence of the party’s members/supporters and the parliamentarians who work with the leader every day and see their ‘jobs’ as being on the line.  This is not an easy balance to find and as evidenced in this case can create much internal turmoil within a party.  As parties around the world face pressures to democratise, tensions in leadership selection between the views of grassroots activists and party elites are likely to become more common. In some ways this reflects the recent divide within the US Republican Party resulting from grassroots voters selecting a presidential candidate opposed by many party leaders.

While it is today the norm in Westminster systems to have a single party leader, this is not the case everywhere. Norway, for instance, has separate leaders for the extra-parliamentary party and the party in parliament. Similar systems of multiple and distinct party leaderships can be found in countries such as Belgium, Hungary and Italy. As many Labour parliamentarians are voicing their dissatisfaction with Corbyn’s leadership (some have even suggested the parliamentary party select their own leader if Corbyn wins), it is clear that the divide in opinions and tension between the grassroots membership and the parliamentary party will continue for some time whatever the result on 24 September.

About the authors

Dr Scott Pruysers is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Calgary.

Professor William Cross is the Hon. Dick and Ruth Bell Chair for the Study of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

Jean-Benoit Pilet is Professor of Political Science at Université Libre de Bruxelles.

One thought on “The 2016 Labour leadership election in comparative perspective

  1. Labour party members want more say in how the labour party is run. Members to run the party for the benefit of the members and not for the benefit of relatively small number of people with vested interest.

    Members do not want the MPs to elect the shadow Cabinet. If there are going to be shadow cabinet election then members want to elect shadow Cabinet by all members on one member one vote basis.

    If only MPs elect shadow cabinet then members would be back to been ignored. So please Jeremy Corbyn only agree to all members of the party to vote to elect the shadow cabinet.

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