Samuel Burns | Political Editor | Thursday 1 September 2016 | GMT 16:00 | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s easy to forget now that less than two months ago we were fixated by the awful possibility of Andrea Leadsom becoming prime minister. Despite her euroscepticism, she embodied the social conservatism of the Tory right that the bulk of British voters disagree with. The fact that she was patently a political lightweight was a great concern as well. How on earth did a woman so far removed from the relatively liberal “Cameronite” wing of the party that had won the previous year’s election come as close as she did to number 10? Indeed, how was a woman with very little support within the parliamentary Conservative party even a candidate?
The fad for party democracy, which in the Conservative party’s case puts the two remaining candidates of the Conservative parliamentary party after a series of ballots to the party membership, was the source of these worries. Here less than 200,000 Conservative members would have had the ability to select the country’s next prime minister, and it is difficult to think of a group less representative of the public at large (except perhaps, the membership of the Labour Party).
The concerning comments Leadsom had made about climate change, gay marriage and families may be somewhat out of whack with the British public and her own party’s MPs, but they were very much in line with the thinking of constituency Conservative party chairs up and down the country. It was entirely possible that Leadsom could have weathered the storm of a leadership election and become prime minister, under party rules. But this didn’t happen, thanks due to the Conservatives’ somewhat healthy commitment to the role of parliament in our democracy.
Leadsom knew she would have been a prime minister with a lack of a base in her own parliamentary party, and who could soon face a binding motion of no confidence as Iain Duncan Smith did as leader of the opposition in 2003. The Conservatives and in fact Leadsom it would appear take parliament rather seriously; the Tories it turns out do not take party democracy too far.
The ultimate flaw in “one member, one vote” elections for the leader of a parliamentary grouping is that they give a highly insignificant number of political enthusiasts (even in Labour’s case, the country’s largest political party by membership, the “selectorate” of the upcoming leadership election constitutes less than 2% of the national electorate and less than a fifth of the number of Labour voters in 2015, not that all of them even voted for Labour), whose beliefs often differ substantially from the British political mainstream, the right to overrule elected members of parliament’s wishes and impose a leader on the representatives of often several million voters. Of course this goes against the whole principle of parliamentary democracy.
Within our political system, decision-making is delegated by the people in general elections to our elected representatives in parliament. Members of parliament are elected to represent their constituencies and not party members. They should possess a collective veto over their leadership if they feel that the leadership is not effectively representing the voters that delegated power to them. An MP’s decision reflects the will of their constituency – if they fail to do so their voters have every right to boot them out of office at the next election.
The idea that a handful, in national terms, of party members can impose a leader on the elected representatives of the people is absurd. It is possible to involve party members in the election of leaders, as all major parties do, but this requires a party willing to respect the motions of no confidence – the collective veto – of the parliamentary party, as the Conservatives showed when they removed Duncan Smith in 2003. The problem with Labour, of course, is that it lacks this mechanism – and we have the current stand-off than threatens a constitutional crisis.
Jeremy Corbyn’s clinging to power is a symbol of the hard left’s total disrespect for parliamentary democracy. Within almost any political party in the world, a motion of no confidence passed by the party’s deputies on the incumbent leader would lead to their resignation. Unfortunately, the combination of the lack of a binding confidence system in Labour’s rules and Mr Corbyn’s disrespect for the parliamentary Labour party means that we have the novel situation of a leader of the opposition, a constitutional position receiving a salary from the state, only being recognised in his position because of the internal structures of a private organisation rather than any accepted constitutional convention and in direct opposition to our parliament.
The far-left Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, of which Mr Corbyn is a supporter, would describe their cause in deceptively simple terms of being a crusade for more democracy – the more people directly voting for the party leader, the more democratic the process. But by empowering a few hundred thousand members, they are diluting the voice of the millions that voted for Labour in the last election. That is not democracy. That is a putsch.