Voices: No, Tory party members shouldn’t be allowed to choose our next prime minister

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Tory members represent just 0.34 per cent of the electorate  (Getty/iStock)
Tory members represent just 0.34 per cent of the electorate (Getty/iStock)

Funnily enough, people who think that party leaders should be chosen by MPs alone tend to prefer Rishi Sunak to Liz Truss. That is true of me. I think that party members should not have a vote in leadership elections, and I think Sunak would make a better prime minister.

But I plead not guilty to the charge of starting with the result I want and making my views of internal party democracy fit it. It is true that, if this election had been decided by MPs, Sunak would be prime minister now. MPs would have held one more round of voting, with Penny Mordaunt eliminated, and, assuming her vote was split about equally between the two remaining candidates, Sunak, who was 24 votes ahead of Truss, would almost certainly have prevailed.

In my defence, however, I have long held the view that party members should be excluded from leadership elections. Indeed, my view predated the change in the Conservative Party’s rules, made by William Hague in 1998. My opinion was formed in reaction to the Labour Party’s decision to extend the leadership franchise from MPs in 1981, and the decades of debate about the party’s internal democracy that followed.

In every party in a parliamentary system around the world that has extended the leadership franchise, it has been done for reasons of factional advantage dressed up in an appeal to democracy.

In Labour’s case in the UK it was part of the factional struggle that sought to secure the leadership of the party for Tony Benn. There was no immediate prospect of Benn winning a leadership contest among Labour MPs, so his supporters launched a two-pronged assault. The first part was mandatory reselection, by which non-Bennite MPs would be deselected and replaced with Bennite candidates chosen by local party activists. But sitting MPs fought tenaciously to preserve their position and it became clear that it would take years and several general elections to “purify” the parliamentary Labour Party.

So the Bennites took a shortcut, which was to change the leadership election rules at a special party conference in Wembley in January 1981. With enough of the block votes of the trade unions behind them, they created an electoral college made up of the unions (40 per cent), party members (30 per cent) and MPs (30 per cent).

Unfortunately for Benn’s supporters, James Callaghan, the outgoing leader, had seen them coming and took the precaution two months earlier of standing down and triggering a leadership election under the old rules. Labour MPs elected Michael Foot, a compromise candidate with sufficient support among Bennites to make it hard for Benn to challenge him.

Thus the new electoral college was tested in an election for the deputy leadership instead, as Benn took on Denis Healey. Healey’s victory by a margin of 0.8 per cent marked the high point of Bennism and the start of the party’s long march back to social democracy, although there was still the 1983 election to lose, on a Bennite manifesto, first.

The point, however, is that the choice of leader was taken out of the hands solely of MPs for factional reasons, dressed up in the language of democracy and accountability. Similar arguments were made, and dressed up, for subsequent changes, starting with the move to one member, one vote in an electoral college made up of equal thirds in 1993. Much the same happened with Ed Miliband’s change in 2014 to election by members and registered supporters only, with MPs reduced to the gatekeeping role of nominating candidates. This had been intended to dispose of the charge that Miliband was the creature of the trade union general secretaries – who had swung his election in 2010 against the party members’ and MPs’ sections of the electoral college. The change had the unintended consequence of allowing the election of Jeremy Corbyn, thereby providing another example of when my personal preference coincided with my belief that the choice should be made by MPs alone.

Meanwhile, other parties and other parties in other countries followed Labour’s bad example. Hague changed Tory leadership election rules to protect himself against a challenge from Michael Portillo. Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, changed the Labor Party’s rules in 2013, splitting the vote 50-50 between MPs and party members. He had just staged a leadership coup against Julia Gillard among Labor MPs and wanted to prevent her from striking back. (After he lost the general election, Rudd stood down and Bill Shorten won the MPs’ vote, while Anthony Albanese won the members’ vote; Shorten was elected. Shorten stood down when he lost the 2019 election and Albanese was elected unopposed; he won this year’s general election.)

The point is that these changes are always made for tactical reasons, whatever reasons of high principle are given (“stability” is another one, in the relatively unstable Australian system). But any departure from election by MPs alone contradicts the fundamental principles of parliamentary democracy.

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The way it works is that the prime minister is the person who commands the confidence of the House of Commons (or the House of Representatives in Australia), and the mechanism by which this is achieved is that the post is taken by the leader of the party that has a majority in parliament. That requires party discipline, the most important element of which is that a party’s MPs must accept the authority of their leader. That probably won’t be a problem for Liz Truss. She had enough support among Tory MPs to make her a credible leader. But any departure from the pure constitutional principle is a weakness if the members choose a different candidate from the one the MPs would have chosen. At best, it will be an attack line for Sir Keir Starmer, pointing out that she wasn’t the choice of the MPs behind her; at worst, it will make her vulnerable to plotting.

It was a problem for Iain Duncan Smith, whose MPs would have chosen Kenneth Clarke in the 2001 leadership election. His weak base of support in parliament hastened his downfall two years later. And it was a problem for Jeremy Corbyn, who knew that he had the active support of fewer than one in five Labour MPs, which made his leadership like driving with the handbrake on.

In principle, in a parliamentary democracy, party members exert their influence by choosing candidates. It is then for MPs in parliament to organise themselves most effectively, which must include the right to elect their own leader. The Bennites were right about mandatory reselection and wrong about the electoral college.

There are all kinds of arguments in practice against having our next prime minister chosen by an extremely skewed sample of 160,000 people, as is well illustrated by the candidates’ poses on grammar schools and human rights, let alone tax cuts. The best question at Thursday night’s hustings came from a young person called Patrick, who complained, in effect, that the decision on the country’s leader would be made by older people who were hogging all the money and houses, and who spend their time “watching daytime TV”.

But the fundamental objection is one of principle: that it is not “more democratic” to open up the election of a leader to party members, any more than a Twitter poll is “more accurate” if a lot of people take part.

It is less democratic for party members to decide who the party leader is because they will skew the choice away from that made by MPs, who are accountable to all the people.

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