What role should party members have in leadership elections?

As Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer continue to be investigated for possible breaches of lockdown rules, it is conceivable that both major parties could hold leadership contests in the near future. What role should party members have in those elections? The Unit asked Paul Goodman, Cat Smith and Tom Quinn for their view. Tom Fieldhouse summarises their responses.

The Westminster system, where the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons usually becomes Prime Minister, makes how parties select their leaders (and the electorate), matter enormously to the health of our democracy.

In light of the continuing uncertainty about whether the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will face a leadership challenge, the Constitution Unit held a webinar on 7 April 2022, entitled ‘What role should party members have in leadership elections?’. The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, and she was joined by three distinguished panellists: Paul Goodman, Editor of Conservativehome and former Conservative MP for Wycombe; Cat Smith MP, Labour Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood; and Dr Tom Quinn, Senior Lecturer, Department of Government, University of Essex

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.

Paul Goodman

Paul began his contribution by providing some useful history, reminding us, that Conservativehome (under its previous editor), had risen to prominence when it campaigned for the right of Conservative Party members to have a role in electing party leaders.

He went on to explain that, at least in relation to Labour and the Conservatives, an intractable tension exists that prevents a perfect solution. On the one hand, party leaders are the leader of a political organisation – and so it follows that to have a democratic culture the party members should elect the leader. However, because both parties seek to govern (via exercising a majority in the House of Commons), they also need their leader to enjoy the confidence of MPs – suggesting it should be they who decide instead. Paul thought that, considering this tension, the best solution involves both members and MPs each having a say, and that the present Conservative Party system actually does quite a good job in this regard.

Paul concluded by warning that we must not just think in abstractions but remember that questions of leadership are also emotionally charged. Indeed, there is often a disconnect between party members and MPs, each of whom may sometimes regard the other as being either too extreme, or else perhaps, insufficiently committed or ideologically pure. This situation is exacerbated when a leadership change installs a new Prime Minister mid-parliament, as happened with Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. In such cases, questions of legitimacy can come to dominate.

Cat Smith MP

Cat also began her remarks by drawing on a little historical context, explaining that the Labour Party’s political tradition, being born out of the Trade Union movement, was an important determinant in party members and affiliates being involved in the process of choosing a leader.

She agreed with Paul about some of the inherent tensions, including that there can often be an awkward three-way disconnect between the political views and priorities of party members, the party’s MPs, and the new voters they are trying to attract. However, because winning an election requires having a leader that can reconcile this and maintain a diverse internal coalition of party activists, MPs, unions and party affiliates, Cat thinks that a selection process involving all three, while messy, is a good thing.

Cat also considered some of the interesting dynamics around party membership. She noted that there was often a surge of new members around the time of leadership elections, as people join the party to exercise a vote and influence the choice of new leader. Cat also suggested that, given the annual membership fee, there is something of a transactional relationship, where members feel that because they have paid, they should therefore get to have a say.

Tom Quinn

Tom provided some further historical and international context, as well as some insightful observations about how the different systems operate.

He began, by highlighting that, somewhat unusually, Britain has been at the forefront of extending a role to ordinary party members in choosing their party leaders. In many other countries, leaders often simply ‘emerge’ from opaque party congresses, rather than from election processes. Tom also observed that historically in Britain, political parties have tended to change their selection processes when they have been in opposition. This is partly because they have more time to focus on internal matters, but also because when intense disagreements about the future of the party have seemed intractable, the solution has been to resolve this by giving members a say. In fact, today, most British political parties use some form of all-member ballot to select their leaders.

However, while all-member ballots are democratic and have certain advantages (as touched upon by both Cat Smith and Paul Goodman), they also have their drawbacks. Firstly, party members (on average and across parties), are middle class and middle aged and therefore less socially and demographically representative of the voting public. Secondly, parties sometimes use leadership elections as opportunities to expand their membership – using the opportunity to choose the next leader as a means of attracting new members, often at the expense of ideological homogeneity. However, the biggest drawback relates to the tension inherent in the Westminster system, already identified by both Cat Smith and Paul Goodman, whereby political parties are also parliamentary organisations, requiring leaders capable of providing cohesion and direction among MPs. If the leader is out of sync with their parliamentary party, as happened with Jeremy Corbyn, this becomes much harder.


The Q&A allowed the panellists an opportunity to consider some of the various overlapping themes in more depth and introduced some interesting new topics. This included exploring what might happen if a leader preferred by Conservative Party members was not the same as that favoured by MPs. Similarly, the panellists pondered the question of what happens in a system where losing the confidence of MPs does not necessarily result in the replacement of that leader – as exemplified by Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. Other questions included: the difficulties of changing leader during a crisis; the role of proportionality in leadership elections; and the value of widening the electorate via open primaries.

The difficulties in reconciling the intrinsic tensions outlined in this discussion have resulted in the emergence of slightly messy, hybrid systems, which seek to maximise the benefits of all member balloting, whilst minimising the risks – often by MPs constraining the available choices. While far from perfect, this approach may nevertheless represent the ‘least bad’ outcome possible.

The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast. Visit our Events page for news of future events and video and podcast links for previous webinars.

About the author

Tom Fieldhouse is a Research Fellow & the Networks Coordinator at the Constitution Unit.