Who should pick party leaders: MPs, members or a wider public?

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are currently in the midst of party leadership campaigns that could change the country’s political course. The winner of the former will likely succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister, whilst the next Lib Dem leader could lend a crucial number of votes to the largest minority party in the event of a hung parliament. On 17 June the Constitution Unit hosted four experts in political party processes to discuss the question, ‘Who should pick party leaders: MPs, members or a wider public?’. Lorenzo Leoni summarises the speakers’ contributions.

The question of how parties elect their leaders has perhaps never been so pertinent to the wider political process. For the first time, the decision of who becomes the country’s next Prime Minister looks likely to be decided as a consequence of a party membership choosing their party leader, without the intervening event of a general election. The implications of this (and the growing influence of memberships in party leadership elections more generally) for our system of representative democracy have perhaps not been sufficiently articulated before now. This well timed seminar sought to address some of these issues by bringing together four party experts to help make sense of leadership elections:  Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London; Mark Pack, editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire and former Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats; Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society and Paul Webb, Professor of Politics at the Sussex European Institute.

Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London

Tim Bale opened the evening with what was perhaps the most timely analysis: that of how the Conservative Party chooses its leader. Unlike members of other parties, they have no direct influence on policy, so leadership elections are one of the only ways in which they can influence the party’s direction. Beginning with a brief pen-portrait of the party, he illustrated how the 160,000 or so members of the party are unrepresentative of the population as a whole: demographically they are middle class, over 50, white, and geographically concentrated in the South; ideologically they generally identify as either ‘fairly or very right-wing’.

Bale was sanguine about the fact that a small group of people are responsible for electing not only their party leader but the country’s Prime Minister. Whilst divergent from the wider population, Bale noted that Conservative members are not too dissimilar from the larger group of people who vote for the party at a general election: they are not a ‘breed apart’ from those who support the party come polling day. He also sought to remind the audience that the UK is a democracy that relies on party strength within the House of Commons to determine who should be Prime Minister. In that context, he argued, allowing the party to select their own leader (and therefore the Prime Minister) was not automatically a cause for concern.  

Bale argued that it is imperative that parties remain organisations of civil society rather than drifting into a position where they are over-regulated and closely entwined with the apparatus of the state. It is crucial they have agency to do as they wish and, as the ‘movers and shakers’ in our system, if the party commands a majority in parliament it is quite natural that their leader should also become Prime Minister. 

What is the alternative to election by members? Even if the party leader was elected solely by MPs the result would in all likelihood be the same. There is little evidence to suggest MPs’ opinions are too different to those of the membership: ‘there is not a big difference between the green benches and the grass roots’. In Bale’s view, they are mutually influencing groups. 

Widening out from the Conservative Party, Bale ended with a comparison of what different party members value in their leaders. Labour members favour those who can be seen as ‘in touch’ whilst Tory members favour ‘likeability and intelligence’ and the ability to ‘unite the nation’. When asked in 2015, only 15% of Conservative members said ‘the ability to negotiate’ was an important trait in a leader; 16% went for ‘being good in a crisis’. Bale’s concluding remark was that ‘they may get exactly what they wish for’.

Mark Pack, editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire and former Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats

Mark Pack started by arguing that to focus on who the electorate is in leadership contests is to ignore a more important question: namely, what are the rules and the culture that govern such elections?

In the case of the Liberal Democrats, Pack’s view is that the culture is ‘incredibly nice’ and elections are therefore insufficiently adversarial. A process in which the questions asked at hustings have to be addressed to all candidates, for instance, will often leave the weaknesses or foibles of a particular person unscrutinised. As the Liberal Democrats are a smaller party and lack the media attention given to either Labour or the Conservatives, this conviviality may undermine an important opportunity to instil a level of scrutiny and healthy disagreement in the party’s internal discourse. 

Indeed, the process can leave the emergent leader lacking any real ‘road-testing’ before they are unveiled to the wider public. Pack suggested that in 2015 neither Tim Farron nor his competitor Norman Lamb were scrutinised effectively, meaning Farron’s first high-profile political event, the 2017 general election, was marred by pointed questions about his personal religious beliefs, an issue on which he had not been examined during the leadership contest. If he had, he might not have been elected as leader and party policy might have gone in a very different direction. Alternatively, had he won despite a close examination of his religious views, he would have had an opportunity to prepare how to respond to similar questions when subjected to the media spotlight during the election. 

The nature of the contest means that the frontrunner usually wins in Liberal Democrat leadership races; if so, that should mean that Jo Swinson will be named Lib Dem leader in July. A cordial and well-mannered process may be true to the guiding ethos and culture of the party, but, in Pack’s view, it does not do enough to scrutinise performance or probe personal beliefs and policy positions. 

Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society

Consistent with what Tim Bale suggested earlier in the evening, Garland began by arguing that as private organisations, parties can and should make their own rules to select leaders as they see fit, rules which have to account for the party’s history, culture, and electoral needs. Like Bale, she was not in favour of legislating to regulate how parties organise themselves.

In the case of Labour, recent changes have led to a greater democratisation of the process, moving them towards a more inclusive system. By changing in 2014 from an electoral college system to a ‘One Member, One Vote’ model, Labour has moved much further and faster than many other parties in both the UK and other western democracies. Notably, this inclusivity has been accelerated recently through a change to the nomination system, which was once the sole responsibility of MPs but has since been opened up to constituency Labour parties (CLPs) and unions.

In asking why this ‘almost unique’ model came about, Garland notes that parties often change their leadership selection process following electoral defeats – the Conservatives reformed their model in 1998, for example – as change is seen as a way of becoming more electorally appealing, whilst allowing for a leader who appeals to a wider base than just MPs. In the Labour case the change was hastened by the 2014 Falkirk scandal, which undermined faith in the party’s longstanding internal systems.

Those changes were also an attempt at restoring institutional legitimacy lost through the enduring decline in membership. Simply, by broadening out the franchise to non-member supporters, leadership elections became a way for the party to reconnect to its history as a mass movement that began life outside of parliament.

In the UK, Labour’s move to greater inclusivity is the starkest example of a general trend towards placing the decision making process into the hands of party members. As for who should be involved in electing a party leader, she expressed the view that the correct answer would depend on the individual party, and its culture, history, organisational norms, external pressures and that party’s concept of legitimacy. No one selection model would fit all parties.

Paul Webb, Professor of Politics, Sussex European Institute

Paul Webb pointed out that when asking these questions, you first have to decide what the term ‘party leader’ actually means. The Liberal Democrats, for example, have a party leader and a party president, and in other countries, such as Germany, there are potentially numerous people who could be labelled as party leader.

Using data from a 2014 Pilet and Cross study of parliamentary democracies, Webb demonstrated how the tendency in the UK to hand the decisive vote to party memberships goes against the norm of the 13 countries (and 97 parties) assessed. In only a third of instances do party members have the final say; more typical is a system which hands this power to delegates attending conferences or conventions. The data also demonstrated that there exists striking continuities between parties in each country; a ‘sort of contagion’ whereby a single method comes to be favoured by the majority of parties in a given country. 

In a parliamentary deocracy, this can lead to parties being drawn into conflict with the extra-parliamentary party where it is the latter who have the right to choose the leader. The situation within the Parliamentary Labour Party – characterised by a tension between a leader elected directly by members and a bloc of unconvinced backbench MPs – verifies the predictions made by the late Robert McKenzie in the 1950s. A second possible problem posed by leadership elections in parliamentary democracies, is that of the arguably undemocratic practice of a small subset of the wider electorate determining the country’s leaders, and the resultant policy implications of such a system.

Webb closed by offering three suggestions as to how these problems could be addressed:

  1. Selection by open primary, although this comes with the risk of lame duck Prime Ministers who cannot maintain a parliamentary majority.
  2. The establishment of a convention that prime ministers elected in such a way immediately call a general election in order to confirm their democratic legitimacy.
  3. The establishment of a convention that party leaders elected by party members should immediately put the result to a vote of their parliamentary colleagues.

This post is a brief summary of a ninety minute event, which included a Q&A session that is not covered above. To watch the full event, see here.

About the author

Lorenzo Leoni was a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit between April and June of 2019.