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The power held by UK political party members is no longer defensible

The writer is director of the Institute for Government, a think-tank

The brickbats are already flying in the Conservative leadership contest. Penny Mordaunt, emerging from a sketchy ministerial career to be the main challenger to Rishi Sunak as party leader and thus Boris Johnson’s successor as prime minister, has attracted much of the opprobrium but no one has escaped unscathed.

Looking at this ill-tempered theater, played out through televised debates, I wonder though whether this method of selecting party leaders will be the real loser. I suspect it is going to backfire — on the Conservative party first, but then the country as a whole.

Above all, I wonder whether the procedure of letting party members have the final say will survive general public incredulity that the choice of prime minister comes down to such a small number of people.

Any party leadership race provides a chance to explain again (often to bewildered overseas media) that Britain has a parliamentary system. Voters choose their local MPs, and the leader of the party with enough MPs to form a government — or a coalition — is the prime minister. The party can change its leader without a general election — very different from a presidential system, where the president is directly elected by voters, as in the US.

Sometimes this also needs explaining to politicians themselves. Johnson seemed to imply that the UK had a presidential system before he resigned as Conservative party leader on July 7, in his desire to appeal directly to the 14mn voters who had given the Conservatives their majority in 2019.

In an age where people vote for everything or rate it online, from Love Island winners to Uber drivers, you can feel public incomprehension growing at the lack of a say in the country’s next leader. The televised debates seem to invite everyone to have a view but the system gives no space to this impulse. The result is that there is a great deal of pressure — although not always a great deal of understanding — brought to bear on the different ways the main parties pick their leaders.

For Conservatives, MPs whittle down contenders to the last two — the process currently under way. Then party members vote. These are very different audiences, leaving candidates lurching around in their promises, hoping that somehow the rest of the country doesn’t hear what they are saying.

The audible disquiet is around the second stage. There are currently fewer than 200,000 Conservative party members and compared with the population as a whole, they are older, whiter and living in the south. The cry goes up: why should such a tiny band of unrepresentative people pick the next prime minister? There is inevitably pressure on the prime minister chosen in this way to establish legitimacy quickly through calling a general election, as Johnson did in 2019.

It is only comparatively recently that Conservative party members have had such a big say. Before 1965 its leaders simply “emerged” after discussion among MPs. After 1965, they were elected by MPs. Reforms in 1998 by William Hague, then leader, in response to the 1997 election defeat gave party members the final decision.

Labor has experimented for decades with different ways of picking its leaders, giving votes to MPs, trade unions, members and others. Its 2015 rule change giving votes to affiliated and registered supporters as well as full members triggered an influx which helped install Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

But because party rules do not give Labor MPs the power to remove their leader by a vote of no confidence as their Conservative counterparts can (Corbyn simply refused to go in 2016 after such a vote), they cannot achieve the defenestration of a sitting prime minister in quite the same way as has happened with Johnson.

The motive in both parties for giving members a voice is clear — it seems more democratic. But there are never going to be enough of them to give a sense of real legitimacy. Because they are self-selecting activists or at least committed enough to politics to choose to pay for a party membership, they will never resemble the electorate overall.

Provided that the UK maintains a parliamentary system based on parties, it might be better to give MPs the decisive say. They are at least elected by the whole country. It would provide a more defensible process than the one now under way. Meanwhile we will have to watch for another six weeks, knowing that the candidates are playing on a national stage to a tiny gallery.

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