Britain’s cost of living crisis is deepening by the day. Millions worry about how they will pay their winter heating bills. The UK government, meanwhile, is frozen in inaction as it waits for the result of a two-month, presidential-style campaign to elect the next Conservative party leader and prime minister. The two candidates have sparred in national TV debates, yet only 150,000 or so Conservative party members — 0.32 per cent of the 46.5mn electorate — will vote. After Boris Johnson’s elevation in 2019, this is the second time in three years that a UK prime minister has been chosen this way. It would be better not to repeat it.
On the face of it, rank-and-file votes seem preferable to MPs’ conclaves in the smoke-filled rooms of Westminster lore. Until 1981 and 1998, respectively, Labour and Conservative leaders were elected by their MPs. Before 1965, Tory leaders simply “emerged” from discussions among party grandees.
Party-wide leadership polls are said to enhance internal democracy and entice members. Parties in parliamentary democracies such as Canada and Australia have also introduced them, though in some cases MPs’ and membership votes are given a 50-50 weighting. The UK Labour party’s shift to an entirely one-member-one-vote system in 2014 was billed as removing trade unions’ disproportionate power under its previous electoral college model.
But in the UK serious flaws have emerged. As in 2019, nearly two months will pass this year between one Tory premier’s resignation and the naming of the next — far longer than the 25 working days stipulated for a general election. Yet Tory MPs both times took less than two weeks to whittle down a dozen or so hopefuls to two candidates to put to the membership.
Candidates must then spend weeks pandering to a narrow and deeply unrepresentative slice of voters. A 2020 study found Tory members are older (39 per cent are over 65), richer, more male, more southern-based and far more predominantly white than the general population. The longer the campaign goes on, the more the leadership contenders are sucked in to populist pitches aimed at this micro-electorate.
Liz Truss has doubled down on the have-your-cake-and-eat-it tax cuts she has been promising since the MP voting stage. Rishi Sunak, who initially presented himself as the voice of economic reason, has become more reckless as he found “doomster” messages played badly. In a sign of the extent to which he has been drawn into playing to the grassroots, Sunak has proposed widening the definition of “extremism” to include people who “vilify Britain”.
Similar objections would hold true whichever party were in power, and whoever the candidates. A long hiatus in government is damaging. Aside from the bounce in Labour’s numbers before its 2015 poll elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, moreover, party-wide votes have in reality done little to reverse the decades-long decline in party memberships. And Labour’s 2015 vote produced a leader who struggled to command a majority among his own MPs.
Parties in opposition may be entitled to use a party-wide vote to choose a leader, who will then face the broader electorate. For a party in government, whose programme has been endorsed in a general election, the job of replacing a leader midterm should be returned to MPs. Party members could be given a say by requiring MPs to consult local associations. But in Britain’s parliamentary democracy, MPs are elected by constituents to take decisions on voters’ behalf. It is logical and consistent that they decide who should lead them — allowing the government quickly to get back to managing the crises of the day.