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.  Continue reading

Six constitutional questions raised by the election of the new Conservative leader

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgIn less than one month, Conservative Party members will elect a new leader from a two-man shortlist. Under normal circumstances, what happens next would be obvious – Theresa May would resign and the winner would be called on by the Queen to form a government and take office as Prime Minister. However, with the Conservatives lacking a parliamentary majority and normal party loyalties skewed by Brexit, the current scenario is far from normal. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell identify six key constitutional questions that the Conservative leadership election raises for the winner, his party, the Palace and parliament.

With the Conservative Party leadership contest in full swing, the expectation is that Britain will soon have a new Prime Minister. But the process has opened up some significant constitutional controversies. This is the first time that party members will potentially directly elect a new Prime Minister, and this innovation is happening at a time not only of minority government, but with the governing party severely divided. Some senior Conservatives have signalled that they might go so far as to vote no confidence in a new leader who sought to deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, while some candidates in the race suggested a possibility of proroguing parliament to avoid MPs blocking a ‘no deal’. In this post we address six of the most burning constitutional questions raised by these controversies.

1. Will the new leader of the Conservative Party be appointed Prime Minister?

Not necessarily. The key test is whether the Conservatives’ new leader is able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is how it is expressed in the key paragraphs of the Cabinet Manual:

2.8    If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.

2.9    … In modern times the convention has been that the Sovereign should not be drawn into party politics, and if there is doubt it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process, and in particular the parties represented in Parliament, to seek to determine and communicate clearly to the Sovereign who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. As the Crown’s principal adviser this responsibility falls especially on the incumbent Prime Minister …

2.18    Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor.

Clearly none of these paragraphs quite covers the present unusual circumstances: Prime Minister Theresa May is on course to resign as an individual (2.18), rather than on behalf of the government (2.8), but the governing party does not have an overall Commons majority. Two things however are clear in either case. First, that the new Prime Minister must be the person most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and second, that it is the responsibility of the politicians to determine who that person is, in order to protect the Queen from the political fray.

Whether the new Conservative Party leader can command parliamentary confidence is clearly in some doubt given comments from Conservative MPs that they may not be able to support the new government. The government only has a majority of three (including the DUP), so only a very few rebels is enough for it to lose its majority. The parliamentary arithmetic is not necessarily that simple, because some pro-Brexit Labour rebels could conceivably decide to support the government. But the number of Conservative rebels is potentially large enough. Continue reading

How long an extension to Article 50 does the UK need?

download.001alan.jfif (1) Despite last-minute additions, Theresa May’s Brexit deal has again been heavily defeated in the Commons. Hence, MPs will need to consider an extension of Article 50. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick argue that for any practical purposes – including renegotiating a deal, or holding a referendum or citizens’ assembly to break the Brexit impasse – the extension previously proposed by the Prime Minister is too short. MPs may now want to press a longer extension on the government.

This week is crunch Brexit decision time for parliament. With the official exit day of 29 March just over a fortnight away, the Prime Minister has been defeated for the second time on her deal, despite some last-minute concessions. She has previously promised MPs further votes on two things: the immediate prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit, or requesting an extension to the Article 50 period. Following tonight’s defeat, MPs will be asked tomorrow whether they wish to exit without a deal on 29 March. If that is defeated, as looks very likely, they will be asked on Thursday whether the Prime Minister should return to Brussels requesting a delay to exit day. Such a decision is at the discretion of the EU27, who must unanimously agree.

The Prime Minister originally proposed that if the Commons supported extending Article 50 she would ask for a ‘short, limited extension’, which should go ‘not beyond the end of June’. But while this might buy the UK time, and avoid the immediate risk of a ‘no deal’ exit, would it really be adequate to resolve the situation? When MPs face this question, there are many reasons to believe that they should demand a longer extension, given how little could be achieved within three months.

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On restoring responsible political parties

picture.52.1535547351DtrC8R1XQAIIktGAs calls for another Brexit referendum grow ever louder, Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro discuss their new book, Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, in which they argue that attempts to decentralise political decision-making in the US and UK have made governments and political parties less effective and damaged their ability to address constituents’ long-term interests. 

Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have sought to bring politics closer to the people. Party members more often elect their leaders directly. There has been greater use of referendums and plebiscites. Many political parties have adopted decentralised ways of choosing candidates. Boundaries have been redrawn to create ‘majority-minority districts’ – in which the majority of the constituents in the district are non-white – and thus ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. In many (especially newer) democracies, proportional representation (PR) is favoured as more inclusive of non-majority voters. Unlike single member district systems, which generate two big catch-all parties, parties proliferate under PR; minority groups can all vote for parties they expect to fight for them in the legislature. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements that move decisions closer to the people and elect politicians who are less remote from – and more responsive to – the voters.  

Paradoxically, however, this decentralisation has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation. Poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties and institutions, dramatically underscored in 2016 by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the US presidency. Similar patterns prevail in many democracies, where anti-establishment parties and candidates enjoy unprecedented support from voters. They reject government recommendations in referendums and plebiscites, and elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago. Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as ‘tossing the bums out’ shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on their representatives. Continue reading