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.

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Why a central role for party members in leadership elections is bad for parliamentary democracy

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThe Labour Party is currently engaged in picking a new leader. In recent years greater and greater powers have been given to party members in such elections, at the cost of parliamentarians. Meg Russell argues that these changes have destabilised the dynamics of parliamentary democracy, weakening essential lines of accountability. She suggests that there is a need to properly review these effects. In the meantime she proposes some short-term solutions for Labour.

Labour’s leadership election is underway, with a final decision due after a ballot of party members and affiliated supporters on 4 April. Currently, four candidates are pursuing nominations from constituency parties and affiliated organisations, following an initial round of nominations by Labour MPs (and MEPs). Under Labour’s present system, the party’s MPs have relatively little control over the outcome – serving solely as ‘gatekeepers’ to the ballot. As occurred in 2015, a leader could hence emerge who has little Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) support. This arrangement departs significantly from the original basis for choosing UK party leaders, and is unusual internationally. It has potentially destabilising effects on the whole political system, given parliament’s centrality. This post argues that, in the short-term, pledges from Labour candidates could avoid the worst potential effects on the party.

The history of leadership election rules

Traditionally, MPs chose the UK’s party leaders. Labour was the first party to diverge from this, under pressure from left-wing activists in the 1970s. Believing that MPs were prone to pick overly-centrist leaders, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy pressed for local party and trade union involvement. This led to adoption of the so-called ‘electoral college’ in 1981, giving equal weight in the final outcome to 3 groups – MPs, constituency parties and affiliated organisations – though MPs controlled the initial nominations. That system survived largely intact for decades without upset. Crucially, the final ballot outcome was consistent with MPs’ own preferences for the elections of Neil Kinnock in 1983, John Smith in 1992 and Tony Blair in 1994 (while Gordon Brown’s 2007 succession was uncontested). Cracks began showing in 2010, when Ed Miliband was elected despite his brother David having greater support from both MPs and party members. To avoid future splits in the electoral college Ed Miliband abolished it – giving the final say to members, ‘registered supporters’ and affiliated members who all participate on an equal basis. This system elected Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 – despite his limited backing in the PLP – and is being repeated (with minor modifications) now.

The Conservative Party changed its rules more slowly, and retained more safeguards. Famously, Conservatives used to pick their leader through a system of informal ‘soundings’ in the parliamentary party, with formal elections not introduced until 1965. Thereafter, the leader continued being chosen by Conservative MPs, until William Hague’s reforms following the party’s 1997 defeat. The new system echoed Labour’s, by including the wider membership, but retained stronger parliamentary party control. Candidates are whittled down to two (if necessary) through successive MP ballots, with the choice between them being put to the wider membership. This system remains unchanged, and was most recently deployed in 2019 when Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt. Notably, in both 2003 and 2016 the parliamentary party chose a leader (Michael Howard and Theresa May, respectively) without a member ballot, after other potential candidates withdrew.

Member ballots and parliamentary accountability

Inclusion of the wider party membership inclusion in selecting leaders has weakened traditional lines of accountability, as illustrated most starkly by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Although MPs (very narrowly) put Corbyn on the ballot in 2015 it was always clear that he had only minority support within the PLP. A vote of no-confidence in June 2016 made this explicit, when 172 Labour MPs (81%) voted against him, and only 40 in favour. This sparked a fresh leadership contest, which Corbyn comfortably won – leaving the PLP to coexist with a leader that it plainly did not support. Continue reading