Over the last few decades, party leadership elections have become ever more theatrical. American-style debates, grassroots social media campaigns, “parties within a party” and endless toxicity have become standard fare. None of this is good news for our country.
The UK does not have a presidential system. We do not elect a Prime Minister, we elect MPs who then select a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister can be any MP (or, incidentally, Lord) who commands the support of the house. This system has stood the test of time providing stable government for centuries. In recent years, however, our parliamentary system has started to give way for Presidential politics whenever a sitting Prime Minister resigns.
Is it really a coincidence that this Americanisation of our system has coincided with tribalism and division?
Leadership elections breed chaos
Since 2010 we will soon have had five Prime Ministers, four of which will have “inherited” their position. The governments that have followed these “inheritances” have tended to be extremely volatile.
Leadership elections create bitterness within a party, which in turn creates a horde of potential rebels. A quick google search is all it takes to find examples of MPs attacking each other in the most vitriolic ways imaginable. Can you imagine verbally attacking a colleague publicly then trying to work with them again? These people live on a different planet if they think people will “just forget” when the dust has settled.
A leadership election can also be a massive distraction from the day to day business of running the country. Given that they tend to happen at the nadir of a former PMs popularity, it is not uncommon to see would-be candidates try to distance themselves from their old boss. This often results in candidates bashing the Government that they themselves were part of. For a few months, the principle of “collective responsibility” is completely ripped up. Given that the winner will ultimately have to deliver the manifesto they have just trashed, this is not a good start to a premiership.
This is doubly bad when the country is in desperate need of leadership. The economy has never been in more need of urgent care. Action is needed now to stop energy price rises from destroying the country. But rather than come up with solutions, Boris Johnson is pretending to be a fighter pilot. Meanwhile, his two potential successors are arguing about who is less woke. The negligence is criminal and the turmoil that follows will almost certainly sink the next PM.
At a time when decisive action is needed to protect the economy, the instability of a leadership election is the last thing we need.
But does that mean the Prime Minister should not have resigned?
Absolutely not. Boris Johnson had to go. In fact, he should have gone a very long time ago. The man repeatedly broke the law, he ran roughshod over parliamentary standards, he lied, he cheated and he is a threat to national security. He should never have been made Prime Minister, and forcing him to resign i the one good thing this Conservative party has done.
But that does not change the fact that electing a Prime Minister via a leadership election is bad for democracy.
In a general election, politicians need to appeal to a broad church. Failing to do so will almost certainly lead to electoral defeat. Even the most conservative politicians over the last 50 years have sought popular appeal, shying away from more extreme policies in election years. But that is not the case in a leadership election. In a leadership election, candidates must appeal to the party membership not to voters in general.
Party memberships, however, are in no way representative of the general population. The polarisation of politics has only exacerbated this position, with the gulf in opinion between party members and the public at an all time high. To see the difference you only need to look at a recent survey on Boris Johnson’s performance. When asked whether Boris Johnson was doing “Well” or “Badly”, 71% of the population stated he was doing badly. 50% of Conservative party members, however, seem to think he is doing “Well”.
Party members are also far more likely than the average voter to support “culture war” style policies. Conservative party members in particular represent an extremely small cross-section of society, which is largely insulated from the economic turmoil about to engulf the country. The result? Candidates who bang on about shipping refugees to Rwanda, banning strikers and arresting protestors. Selecting a Prime Minister based on his ability to pander to this group is perhaps the worst possible thing that could happen when economic destruction looms.
What else could we do if not a leadership election?
Allowing an MP to take office off the back of “presidential style” hustings is the worst possible outcome. For the remainder of the term this MP will be beholden to promises made on the campaign trail. Promises made not to the general public, but to an unrepresentative group of party members.
Ultimately, electing a leader is a party’s prerogative but this cannot interfere with the running of the country. When a Prime Minister resigns, MPs should vote on a caretaker Prime Minister to manage the affairs of the country until the next General Election. The party can then select a replacement leader at it’s own pace, calling a general election with a new manifesto when ready. This would engender stability and temper the more extreme policies.
Less than 2.5% of the country are members of the Conservative party; we are not living in a democracy whilst they hold us at ransom.