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15 July 2022

It would be more democratic for Tory MPs, not members, to choose the next prime minister

Unlike the 200,000 Conservative members who will pick the UK’s next leader, MPs are elected and accountable to their constituents.

By Rachel Cunliffe

There is little to gain from squabbling over the meaning of “democracy”. It is literally translated as “rule by the people” and there is a multitude of ways to design a system where the public get a say in how their country should be governed.

The ancient Athenians who coined the term and came up with the whole idea (treated with widespread suspicion at the time) went for a direct approach, with citizens getting a vote on key matters such as whether to go war or who to exile. The Romans preferred a more representative system and had elections, but only men from elite families could hold political office. For 500 years Venetians elected their Doge through a mind-boggling complex series of rounds in which the voters themselves were selected by lot.

Universal suffrage is a relatively recent phenomenon but today there is a vast array of different governance structures and voting systems across the world: from straight-up proportional representation used across much of Europe, to the state-by-state headache of the Electoral College that appoints the US president. Some countries, such as Switzerland, frequently make use of referendums (the UK rarely does, which is why we got into a muddle when the Brexit vote clashed with our parliamentary structures); Iceland has looked directly to its citizens to crowdsource its way out of constitutional quandaries; San Marino gives whoever wins the most votes some bonus seats to make sure they have a majority.

It doesn’t really make sense to call one system more or less “democratic” than another. The Athenian ideal proved unworkable in its own time and would be delusional today, so how can you compare a president to a parliament, the party discipline of a first-past-the-post model to the splinter groups and compromises thrown up by proportional representation? What matters, mostly, is that those vying for power play by the rules of their respective nation.

And yet, with all that said, it seems absurd that when Tory MPs have whittled the hopefuls down to two candidates, the next prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be chosen by 0.42 per cent of the electorate, selected based purely on whether or not they have a Conservative Party membership card. (The 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, which makes the rules, will probably also bar new joiners from voting, so entryism isn’t an option.)

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I know, I know, these are the rules of the game. I sound bitter and churlish, whingeing that “it’s not fair”. There is no case for holding another general election, however loudly Labour calls for one. In Britain, the prime minister is the person who can command a majority in parliament, the Tories are the biggest party, and if they want to choose a new leader it’s entirely up to them how they do it. The fact the rest of the country has to deal with the consequences of that decision is irrelevant.

Except it isn’t, not really. Because being prime minister – at any time, really, but especially now we’re facing an economic crisis and war in Europe and the aftermath of a pandemic – is a staggering responsibility. Whoever wins will have the job of sorting out some pretty existential challenges: challenges such as what to do when energy bills shoot up another 65 per cent in autumn, or how to combat double-digit inflation, or whether spending more on defence is an absolute necessity in the face of Russian aggression or an unjustifiable luxury when one in five Brits are skipping meals because they can’t afford food, according to Food Standards Agency research.

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Putting the decision of who should have that job in the hands of 200,000 people is nonsensical in itself, but it’s especially ludicrous given who those people are. An extensive study by researchers at Queen Mary University of London before the 2019 Conservative leadership contest revealed just how unrepresentative of the UK population Tory membership is. Predominantly male (71 per cent) and overwhelmingly white (97 per cent), those who choose to join the party are also disproportionately older, more middle-class and concentrated in the south than the general population.

That doesn’t automatically mean they can’t be trusted to make a sound decision on their next leader, but the way the contest is currently going suggests the candidates are clear on what they think matters to party members: namely unfunded tax cuts and arguments about unisex toilets. The cost-of-living crisis, inflation, NHS backlogs, the impact of lockdown on education – these things have barely got a mention so far. Can we really call it “democratic” to decide who gets to tackle these issues on the basis of a tiny minority who appear to have very different priorities to the rest of the country?

Counter-intuitively, it would actually be more democratic to shrink the pool of people choosing the next PM rather than widen it, putting the decision entirely in the hands of the 358 Conservative MPs. Given the prime minister must command the support of the parliamentary party, there’s a strong case for returning to the pre-2001 Tory rules and letting MPs choose. But there’s a wider point here, about representation. MPs are voted for by and accountable to their constituents, and those constituents are far more representative of the country – in terms of income, class, geography, gender, age and race – than the Tory membership is. A Tory MP casting a vote for the prime minister has an incentive (either morally, if they are invested in the integrity of their position, or pragmatically, if they want to be re-elected) to decide on the basis of what will benefit their constituents; someone who pays £25 a year to be a member of the Conservative Party does not. They are accountable to no one but themselves.

The ancient Athenians would probably approve of the Tory party’s way of doing things. Their cherished form of democracy, after all, excluded slaves, foreigners, women and men who hadn’t done military service or whose parentage was disputed. But while the prospect of Conservatives changing the status quo is virtually non-existent, it shouldn’t be considered sour grapes to question whose opinion matters now – and why. It may not be popular to admit it, but if you’re one of the 99.58 per cent of voters who get no say on the person who will be in charge of this country come September, the present system might not seem very democratic at all.

[See also: John Gray: The hollowness of Boris Johnson]