The case against members deciding is compelling, but so is the case against MPs - we need new approaches!

This is a sequel to a previous blog post, where I wasn’t convinced by the arguments being made about it being especially democratic for MPs to change the prime minister on their own (even if practically they can and have). This blog post goes a bit further into the debate about if MPs are the right or wrong people to pick party leaders in general.

Quick summary:

  • MPs’ fairly unlimited decision making power is constrained by democratic norms, and this should include some hesitancy that they can change leader and party direction alone.
  • The best case for letting MPs decide is that they effectively already have power, not that there is a strong democratic case, or that they are inherently better decision makers.
  • There are specific reasons MPs might be bad decision makers, as their personal interest is mixed with their public role.
  • Fully taking on board all criticisms of leadership elections should lead us to new and exciting ways of including the party’s voters (and target voters) in making leadership decisions, and more constructive overlap between steps, rather than going back over old ground.

Problems with the democratic argument

Bronwen Maddox writing in the FT argued that the practice of party members selecting leaders was becoming more obviously indefensible, and only had the appearance of being more democratic:

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 keeps 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.

This gets at what a lack of follow through from people against the membership having a say - having articulated that the membership have failed to fix a problem (they do not resemble the electorate overall), the solution gives up rather than looking for approaches that could do this.

After all, if the membership are unfit because they’re a weirdly political group unrepresentative of the overall population, this raises real issues about letting MPs choose. Arguments about the demographic breakdown (or how well members work as a proxy for the electorate) are reasonable arguments unless your answer is in favour of a different group with the same problems. Either this is a problem or it isn’t. I think it is a problem that we should try and address rather than ignore.

This is tied to an argument that MPs are suitable in a different way - being democratically elected. This issue gets confused because it’s part of a broader question of how much leeway MPs actually have to make decisions on our behalf. When we’re talking about MPs’ decisions being inherently democratic, some people go “of course”, because they hold that MPs have been given fairly unlimited ability to make decisions on our behalf (representative model). But others think that what’s happened is far more limited - parties and MPs make pitches at elections and then are constrained by what they say they’ll do, and when that isn’t clear, they should come back for fresh instructions (delegate model).

We know from polling that there is a real elite/public split on this - with MPs (and candidates to be MPs) holding they have fairly wide power to use their own judgement, while the public being more likely to see their mandate as limited. In practice, what happens is a mix of these positions. The political system both gives MPs unrestricted practical power, but what they actually do is constrained by norms of behaviour informed by the delegate model (e.g. voters actually endorsed the party manifesto, even if your name was on the ballot, so the democratic thing to do is to follow party instructions to implement it rather than have your own opinions).

Because the idea that government MPs can ‘democratically’ change their leader (and policy direction) does not fit well with the experience of living through an election, when representative model believers are building supporting logic for this (to them, common sense) view of politics, things start to fall apart. In the case of the quote above, Conservative MPs are not elected by the whole country (only by the areas that elected them), and also do not represent all Conservative voters (because many live in areas without Conservative MPs). The idea that “parliamentary democracy” depends on the leader having the confidence of MPs gets stretched until people are arguing that a PM with the support of only half the party (and so one-quarter of MPs), is especially democratic.

In other cases, the argument is made that MPs are direct representatives of the voters, but this is sliding over the exact choice made in the election. The party voters did not have a choice of multiple candidates for the party, so it is difficult to say their voting choice is significantly affected by the candidate’s personal views on the future of the party. There is no mechanism where distribution of views in the party electorate will consistently be reflected in distribution of views among party MPs. People are making vote choices between parties, while voting for individuals - confusing how we talk about the democratic choices being made. We might broadly say that a constituency has authorised an MP to be a Conservative MP rather than a Labour MP, but have not given any clear view on what kind of Conservative to be. In practice, MPs have leeway here, but again, mixed with norms about how they should behave, which at present includes consultation with members and the local party.

(The only people who may have chosen an MP for their factional views are the party selectorate who chose them as a candidate. But this is probably one of the few groups strongly in favour of member decision making - in practice, they would reserve the right to make this decision themselves and not defer to their MP.)

I don’t find it convincing, on democratic grounds alone, to prefer the decision of party MPs to party members making the decision of the leader. If the problem is a change of direction, neither group is authorised to make this change on behalf of voters.

There are practical reasons why we might want MPs to be able to change prime ministers without an election (speed, maintaining standards in office, if someone is unable physically to continue in the job, etc), but we should also want MPs to have awareness of their democratic inadequacy to make certain decisions. In practice, this means parliamentary parties should collectively be willing to endorse the results of processes that go beyond MPs and include different voices. This doesn’t have to mean members alone, and we should be creative in thinking about ways of bridging the gap.

The case that MPs are just better

If there isn’t a democratic case to give the choice to MPs, what other arguments are on offer? Another approach is the good ol’ fashioned belief that MPs are just better people who make better decisions.

Writing for The Times, Jonathan Sumption (a former senior judge) thinks MPs should make the decision on the party leader. He makes some questions about the democratic credentials of party members, being concerned that Conservative members are older and wealthier than the average voter (which again, if a legitimate problem obviously rules out MPs), but the substance of his argument is fleshing out a proper case for elitism. MPs should make the decision, because they will take the wider view, which members will not:

When choosing a new leader, MPs and party members have a very different outlook. MPs are there to represent the interests of their constituents and, in a broader sense, the public interest, whereas party members represent no one but themselves. MPs will look mainly to the impact of their choice on the electorate at large, because that will determine their chances of re-election. They know that this will involve a large measure of ideological compromise. By comparison, party members are rarely interested in ideological compromise and are inclined to look no further than their own political positions. They will choose someone who shares their prejudices, and kid themselves that the rest of the electorate will see the light.

This is a very charitable description of MPs, that just doesn’t hold up with the evidence. Many MPs are, obviously, intensely political people who hold ideological views outside the mainstream, which affects how they view political decisions. They are more ideological than party members (only some of which are political obsessives). This New Statesman article and the linked Mind the Values Gap report on where MPs, members and the public are are well worth reading.

Sumption tries to say that for MPs the public and private interest are aligned - and that’s only sometimes true. Not all MPs are equally exposed to the shifting moods of the electorate, some have a majority that (generally) gives them comfort of making ideological bets. But there’s another element where there is just a straightforward conflict of interest. The decision about the party leader (which should be made with a view on the public interest) is mixed in with the private interest of individual MPs.

Because of the huge power of patronage of the party leader (and especially of the prime minister), there is a strong motivation for MPs to try and get on the winning team. For high profile MPs (who might be potential candidates themselves) promises of significant positions might be part of the deal making process to endorse. Even if the new leader isn’t especially vindictive, there may be people ahead of you in the queue who did back the winner. From the other perspective, there are potentially high profile rewards in backing a longer-shot candidate when prospects for advancement under the frontrunner are low.

There is a mix of private and public motivation in this, and deals making between complimentary wings of the party is part making a compelling offer to the party as a whole. But the private motivations are there. Maybe the idea that there are MPs who backed Truss just for career reasons is just an unfair slur by their opponents, but it can’t just be glossed over. Whether you take it at face value or not, Rory Stewart tells similar stories of MPs telling him they had to back Johnson rather than him in the 2019 election because of the potential impact on their advancement.

At the least, consideration of the private interests of MPs should stop us making sweeping statements about how only MPs represent the public interest alone. Members may have faults, but don’t have their career advancement riding on their leadership choice. Their distance from power has some utility.

The power problem is a bigger issue for the governing party, but there is a different problem for opposition parties: a “high tide” problem. By definition, their MPs are not representatives of the areas that are required to reach a majority, and the views of voters in these areas are not represented even indirectly. The optimal party leader is the median of the party-to-come, not the party-that-is. A leader very popular with existing MPs might be doubling down on failure. This is one reason why MPs might want systematic ways of including other voices in the direction of the party - there are missing people in the room.

MPs already have power, and you have to work with that

This leaves us with the realist case for elitism. Fundamentally existing elites have power, and processes need to include existing elites to stop them undermining the result. This is the most convincing case for MPs having at least some decision power - they cannot be fired, and have to be worked with.

Sumption makes the point that “So far, no UK party leader chosen against the preferences of its MPs has ever gone on to win a general election” - and even accepting this from the small sample (and not bringing up the many leaders chosen by MPs who similarly failed at this task), there is a practical edge to this. MPs working with, or against, the leader obviously impact how effective they can be. Even a small number working against you can be bad!

But the implication of this point is that you need to win big, or you need to manage the large minority who might not be happy with you. Having 45% of your MPs significantly against you is still a big problem when fundamentally you need everyone to throw their weight around together to get things done in a Parliament that contains other parties.

The lesson of the realist approach is not that MPs decide once to make you leader and are bound by that, but MPs decide all the time how well they work with you. It’s a mistake to see a process that guarantees a majority of MPs have said they support you most as solving problems of divided parties. Having strong endorsements from groups outside MPs does not guarantee, but would be part of the argument, that non-backers should support the project.

Let’s do new, better things!

But what’s the alternative? We have to be more creative. Members are bad? Sure! MPs are bad! Oh no! How should parties make these decisions?

One way would be to take this concern that MPs and members are not representative of the voters seriously and assemble a group of voters to act in some part of the process. There’s some element of this in Labour’s £3 membership approach, but it’s not targeted enough. The goal isn’t mass participation (that’s what elections are for), but to make sure the kind of voices that people complain are missing from current processes are deliberately present.

More in depth than polling, this assembly could be used to really road test different directions for the party. There’s no need to follow the usual logic of an entirely representative group of people. Government parties could probably comfortably stick to their voters, but opposition voters may choose to start there and include other demographics they want to make more progress with (this would be an argument in itself, but a structurally useful one to have!).

This could be used as a replacement or addition to members’ votes in an electoral college, or as a sorting stage to narrow the field of different directions before a vote by MPs or members.

Another change could be to increase the constructive overlap of different parts of the process, rather than highlight divisions that may be artificial. The problem with the current process is not that the membership imposed a winner on MPs, but that the two groups pointed in different directions at all.

For instance, this assembly could use an approval voting system (where each candidate can be rated, and there’s a threshold to advance) rather than a head-to-head competition. This avoids the situation where two different parts of the process are pointing in different directions (some candidates may have greater support, but they’re all good enough) - while guaranteeing MPs are choosing from approaches that have real grounding in the groups they need to win an election.

(For the reverse version of this, if Conservative MPs had used approval voting to flush out which candidates could have majority support, it could have been much clearer if members were really imposing an unpopular choice or not, without there being a “winner” for the members to reject).

The important thing from my point of view is not to boringly retreat into arguments for elitism. If the argument against members implies the process should be wider - open it up! If the argument against MPs is that they have too great an opportunity to personally benefit from decisions, it’s really good to have other groups in the mix who have more distance!

Having a clear head about the merits and problems raised by the participation of different groups helps keep the eye on the prize - for parties, leaders who can lead them to popular support in winning elections. And, for the public as a whole, parties that are at least semi-grounded in the issues facing their voters, rather than issues that only animate the highly politically engaged.

Header image: DALL-E prompt