Why party members should never be allowed to elect prime ministers

The disproportionate influence of a small number of activists is distorting the whole character of our democracy. 

NS

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Earlier this week, nearly six million people watched a live TV debate between the candidates to be our next prime minister. What they were watching marked a constitutional revolution. The winner will be Britain’s first directly-elected prime minister: placed in No. 10 not by the public, not by their elected representatives, but by Conservative Party members. That marks a fundamental shift in the location of power; one that is profoundly important, profoundly undemocratic and a recipe for gridlock in our governing institutions.

The election of a new prime minister is not an internal party matter: it is an intervention in the government of the country. The contest is being fought on fundamental questions of policy. Do we leave the EU with no deal? Do we rule out further extensions? Should parliament be suspended? On taxation, public spending and, above all, on Brexit, the whole programme of government is being rewritten to suit the preferences of 160,000 anonymous party members. Not since the days of the rotten boroughs, before the Reform Act of 1832, have a few thousand people held such extraordinary, undemocratic power.

This raises serious questions of legitimacy. In a democracy, the authority to govern must flow from the people. It can do so directly, through a presidency or a general election, or indirectly, through our elected representatives. The current system does neither: on the contrary, it vests the power to appoint a prime minister in a private, members-only democracy that you have to pay to join.

In the name of “internal democracy”, our parties have done something profoundly undemocratic. They have handed over decisions that are fundamental to the way we are governed to a group that is not responsible to the wider public. Unlike MPs, party members are not answerable to voters for the choices they make. We do not know who they are and we cannot hold them to account. It is not necessary to think ill of party members — to accuse them of “extremism”, “fanaticism” or other malign characteristics — to see the democratic deficit.

The combined membership of our major parties makes up roughly 2 per cent of the electorate; yet it exerts a gravitational pull that is grotesquely disproportionate to its numbers. That is distorting the whole character of our democracy, and leaves it uniquely vulnerable to capture. If turnout in the Conservative contest is 75 per cent, the winning candidate will need just 61,000 votes: roughly the size of a decent football crowd. At least 40,000 have joined the Conservatives in the last year, following efforts by the Leave campaign to pack the membership. Nick Clegg has suggested that Remainers do likewise: a startling recognition, by a prominent Liberal Democrat, that the power to shape public policy now lies outside parliament — not among the public as a whole, but in the pay-for-access democracies of the Big Two.

If this system poses problems for democracy, it is also a recipe for gridlock. The vacancy exists because of a collision between the executive and legislature, which left Theresa May unable to carry her Brexit legislation through parliament. Yet if the members elect a candidate who backs no-deal, her successor may be even further adrift from parliamentary opinion. That has knocked out one of the key circuit-breakers of the British constitution: the ability to change a leader who is at odds with parliament for one that commands its confidence. The result may be paralysis tempered by intimidation, as leaders seek to bully MPs into obedience to the “mandate” of the party members.

So how do we repair the damage? One option would be to join the parties and take part in their elections, whether or not you agree with their principles. Yet this goes against everything for which democracy stands. The fundamental principle of democracy is equality: that we have an equal voice, as citizens, in how our country is governed. Our parties should not be selling special democratic privileges in exchange for a financial payment.

Others play down the problem, arguing that MPs could, if they wished, reject the candidate selected by the members. That is true in theory, but illusory in practice. To obstruct the members’ choice, an MP must be willing to bring down the government, blow up their own party and destroy their political career. It is the political equivalent of the nuclear button — and at best, simply returns the choice to the party members. A choice between suicide and surrender is not a useful constitutional safeguard.

More plausibly, we could establish a new convention: that a change of prime minister must be followed by a general election. That would restore democratic accountability, but make it harder to remove a leader who was sick, mired in scandal or who had lost the confidence of parliament. More importantly, it would invert the relationship between parliament and the executive. Prime ministers draw their authority from parliament; parliament does not draw its legitimacy from the prime minister.

Rather than patching up the symptoms, we should tackle the cause of the disorder. If we must have leaders with direct, personal mandates, drawn from outside parliament, we should do it properly: by establishing an elected presidency for which we all can vote. If we want a parliamentary system, then we should make our prime ministers as we make our laws: through elected representatives, whom we can hold to account for their decision. What we must not do is to bolt a party presidency onto a parliamentary system, or let a gold-card, private members’ club appoint the prime minister. As a Conservative cabinet minister herself once put it: “That. Is. A. Disgrace.”

Robert Saunders teaches history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain