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