Expanding on something from a few twitter threads: Parliamentary Democracy explanations of UK democracy are misleading, and lead people who have been educated about it to miss important features of how the democratic system works.
For instance, in this twitter thread Robert Saunders makes the case that it’s undemocratic that party members pick the prime minister. This seems reasonable. But he also says that party MPs picking the prime minister would be more democratic. I find this very difficult to make sense of. He’s not alone in this (and I’ve seen various stray tweets), but it’s one of the most specific write-ups so I’m picking on it.
I think this pair of opinions comes from a dissonance between believing it is legitimate for a prime minister to change without an election, and the obvious weirdness of party members having their own election to choose a new prime minister. In the UK system nothing requires an election when the ruling party changes its leader, and this has happened fairly often. But this is strange, because the democratic elections we do have are obviously about choosing a prime minister.
Parliamentary Democracy accounts of UK politics say that people elect MPs, but do not elect the prime minister. But this doesn’t fit well with how parties present themselves, or in how voters make decisions. MPs themselves have weak personal votes, and (generally) rise and fall with the fortunes of the party. Voters themselves use evaluations of the leaders in decision making, and this shows up in correlations between feelings towards the party leader and voting for the party. If people are not “voting for Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister”, they are “voting for the Conservative-Party-with-Boris-Johnson in charge” to be in control of the country. This is also just really clear in how parties talk about themselves and their leaders. “We elect MPs not the PM” is technically true, but so obviously not a description of our democracy that it raises far more questions than it answers.
Given the election process is clearly about choosing a prime minister, it’s odd that the Prime Minister can also change through a completely different process. We had a big public fight everyone could get involved in about the choice of prime minister, and now there’s an “election-like thing” that only some people get to take part in? The attitude that people who find this odd are uneducated, rather than noticing an obvious misalignment, is very annoying.
The “MPs choosing is democratic” argument tries to reconcile an educated understanding of Parliamentary Democracy with also thinking this not-election is odd. The problem with this argument is the slide between saying that “it’s good and democratic that the Prime Minister is chosen by MPs” and “it’s good and democratic that the Prime Minister is chosen by MPs of one party”. A government, in practice, does not draw its democratic authority from the confidence of parliament as a whole. Its power is a result of parties/coalitions acting as block votes, amplifying internal factions and excluding the minority (opposition) view.
What “Confidence of Parliament” means in practice is that the majority faction continues to value accepting the outcome of internal processes. The important thing is this collective agreement could be anything. If we’ve accepted this kind of block voting as a legitimate part of Parliamentary Democracy, there is no difference if the prime minister is picked by MPs, party members, a citizens assembly of party voters, choosing the tallest candidate, or a random lottery. Whatever rules the majority want to adopt internally leads to outcomes that “a majority of MPs support”. Arguments can be made on other principles (democratic or not), but if Confidence of Parliament is your criteria, there’s no reason to prefer one of these options over another.
All the supporting arguments made for MPs choosing being democratic make much more sense as arguments for elections. Here are a few:
It’s undemocratic for policy change to result from pitches to an unrepresentative minority of the public. True! But this problem is obviously worse if just pitching to PMs. This is already obvious in the current leadership election, where pitches have been made explicitly on the ability to help colleagues get elected or to give them a slush fund to make their constituency work easier.
If a change of policy direction is democratically significant (and there are good reasons to see it that way), this requires an election, regardless of how it came about.
On the other hand, this is also a good argument that a change of leader without a substantive change in direction does not raise democratic questions. A contest limited to MPs might be better able to answer the question “who is best placed to carry out the agenda we have already approved in an election”. But in practice, choosing a new PM generally means something has gone wrong and potential leaders understandably want to pitch their take on what to change. In which case, a new direction is good - and an election also good.
One argument made is that MPs are accountable in a way that party members are not. But we hold MPs accountable with elections, and so if there is not an imminent election, there is no opportunity for accountability. If accountability is important, what you want is an election to validate the choice - and fast.
Practically, in an election, MPs that made a choice will not be judged by that choice - but by the outcome of the process. If an MP said Candidate A should be PM, but Candidate B is appointed by party MPs or the party members, they are still being judged by their new leader - Candidate B. There is no meaningful difference in how the public can hold the choice of MPs, and the choice of party members to account. You need an election.
Party members are not representative of the country. True! But neither are party MPs (in some cases they are even further off). Again, if this is your concern, hold an election.
The Parliament website has an explanation of general elections. The first sentence of the section on who chooses the prime minister says “The Prime Minister is appointed by the monarch”. This is true, but also unimportant. The prime minister is chosen by the public electing MPs that are aligned with them through the election. There are edge cases that are more fiddly, but this explanation is much more useful than the mostly theoretical times the monarch is important. Parliamentary Democracy explanations of what is happening end up emphasising completely unimportant points before explaining what is actually happening in a footnote.
There is a dissonance between the learned reality of British politics (we elect the prime minister) and the educated view of British politics (actually we don’t). This leads to arguments being made about democracy that don’t really work. If you have a democratic problem with party members choosing the prime minister - the only logical thing to think is that this choice needs to be confirmed by a general election. You might just think MPs would make a better decision - and that’s fine! But it’s not a democratic argument.
: You could imagine a different situation where we do not accept block voting or even majority rule (some of the language in this area is because Parliament at points in its history operated more by consensus). In this situation, MPs could rank their preferences for PM and they are elected from the house in this way. The winner would still be from the majority faction, but would be one who is more towards the median position of the whole house - but may be well out of the party mainstream. “Parliamentary Democracy” explanations don’t distinguish between these two scenarios - despite the fact they would represent very different political systems. It’s useful as a factual description of “the rules”, but a very thin description of democracy in itself.