Sunday, July 31, 2016

Of Primaries and Prime Ministers

I have read or heard a number of comments from various people this weekend about how local parties pick parliamentary candidates and how national political parties pick their leaders.

The person who goes furthest out on a limb against the moves which have been made to widen the franchise, and have been seen up to now as extending democracy, is David Herdson in an article on Mike Smithson's excellent "Political Betting" blog, "Time to put UK primaries to bed."

David goes a lot further than I or many others would, and his article includes a number of significant hostages to fortune but he makes some important points such as

"Allowing anyone to participate in something which they’re likely to want to sabotage is obviously foolhardy and even Labour, in opening its leadership contest to self-defined ‘supporters’, does at least reserve the right to deny the vote to those it believes don’t support its objectives."

"We don’t know of course how much internal pressure, if any, was put on Leadsom to withdraw before she reached her decision to stand back but the simple fact that she did act in that way is telling.

What was also telling was the almost complete acceptance of that decision by the Conservative Party. Perhaps the lack of an embedded tradition of membership leadership votes helped there: it’s doubtful that the Labour membership of 2015, never mind that which they have now, would have been quite so sanguine about an outcome decided solely by MPs.

And yet the contrast is clear. The Conservatives replaced their leader with little fuss and selected an obviously capable individual to the role, while Labour is engaging in a contest where none of the most qualified candidates are even standing."

"the system does work if enough people become engaged. Vocal minorities can be rejected (or supported, as the case may be) by the majority when that majority’s mobilised – but that only happens when they see good reason to be involved."

I entirely agree with the Iain Dale line that Tories joining Labour to vote for Corbyn was a shameful thing to do, but I do know Conservatives who paid their £3 to back Jeremy Corbyn purely as an act of sabotage and at least one sitting Conservative councillor managed to do it without being detected and barred from voting.

The fact that entryism and sabotage clearly did happen in the 2015 Labour leadership election is a clear warning to all parties that they need to think carefully about their selection and election procedures to avoid the potential for abuse.

I have taken part myself in two primary elections to select Conservative parliamentary candidates. The first was a "closed" primary (open to Conservative members and declared supporters) for Bristol North-West in 2004, and the second was an "open" primary (e.g. one which any elector in the constituency could take part in) for Copeland in 2007 at which I was readopted to fight the seat for a second time.

There was no evidence whatever of attempted sabotage at either event and I would have no problem at all with opening up future candidate selections at any level to open primaries provided the party organising them is confident that the attendance will be large enough to make capture of the process by a small clique or sabotage by opponents practical.

However, the experience of this year and some powerful arguments which I heard expressed this weekend have persuaded me that the Conservatives should reconsider our leadership election rules and make a small change to apply only when the party is in government.

When we are in opposition we should retain the system when MPs pick two candidates to go to a ballot of all members of the party. In opposition you are not picking someone who then immediately becomes Prime Minister, and party leadership elections in opposition usually take place in the first year of a parliament.

Hence you are not leaving the country with a "lame duck" outgoing prime minister for the weeks or months that a national ballot takes and whoever you pick has four years to establish themselves as party leader before they get a chance to be PM. (That also means that if you get it disastrously wrong, as Conservative members did in 2001 and Labour members in 2015, there is time to reconsider - as the Conservative party did in 2003 and Labour is attempting now.)

However, when a party is in government there is a lot to be said for trying to make a quick and smooth transition, especially if a very clear majority of MPs (more than 50% plus one) are clear about who they want.

I would therefore like to see the Conservative party constitution amended so that while the party is in government - and not when in opposition - if one of the candidates in an election for leader gets the support of 60% or more of the parliamentary party during the ballots of MPs, that candidate is declared party leader immediately without a membership ballot. (If no candidate hits this level of support before their numbers are whittled down to two, then you still have a membership ballot.)

This is a compromise between party democracy and giving the issue back to MPs but I think it would work. It could be argued that this is merely formalising what actually happened this year.

I hope it will be a long time before we have to choose another leader. But when we do I think this rule change would make more sense, and it would be better put in place now.

No comments: