Why member ballots for party leaders threaten parliamentary democracy

Our parliamentary system is undermined when party leaders are not supported by their own MPs

October 23, 2022
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss during this summer’s Tory leadership campaign. Photo: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss during this summer’s Tory leadership campaign. Photo: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo

With Liz Truss’s departure, the Conservative party enters its second leadership contest of 2022, kicking off just six weeks after the previous one concluded. A key point of controversy has been the role of grassroots members, with many senior figures in the party arguing against their involvement following the election of Truss. Sadly, while the objective of broadening participation and enfranchising party members appears noble, her election provided conclusive evidence that the results can be catastrophic. Indeed, the UK’s experiment with member ballots in recent decades has increasingly shown that they can destabilise the foundations of parliamentary democracy itself.

The UK was a world leader in opening up participation in party leadership elections to grassroots members. Historically, leaders in the UK and elsewhere had been chosen by party elites. Conservative MPs alone selected the leader, initially through internal “soundings”, and from 1965 onwards through formal elections. Labour also used elections by MPs until 1981. After this, things gradually opened up. Labour began by involving trade unions and local parties, and from the 1990s, individual grassroots members. The Conservatives followed, introducing a two-stage system through which MPs whittle down the candidates to two, who are put to grassroots members to choose between. Internationally, the UK parties were early adopters in a wave of reforms to empower party members. Such changes were driven by a principle of “democratisation”, and pragmatic desires by parties to look inclusive, and to attract and retain a membership base.

Recent events, however, have shown starkly how such ideals can clash with core principles of parliamentary democracy, and the ability to maintain stable government. At the heart of our parliamentary system is the requirement for the government to retain the confidence of the House of Commons. That, in turn, generally requires the leader of the government to retain the confidence of their own party’s MPs. But systems involving members outside parliament potentially undermine this balance. As soon as there is more than one group involved in picking the leader, risks arise that different groups will favour different candidates.

A problem of this kind was key to triggering the reforms introduced by Labour leader Ed Miliband around a decade ago. In the contest that elected him, trade unions had voted differently from party members and MPs, leading some to question his legitimacy as leader. Miliband’s reforms effectively handed the choice of leader to grassroots members and supporters, with MPs maintaining the right to nominate candidates, but subsequently having no privileged role. The result was the surprise 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn, who had minimal support in the parliamentary party but was favoured by the grassroots. This prompted an extremely difficult period for Labour, and a parliamentary party that struggled to function. After his perceived poor performance in the 2016 Brexit referendum and continued frustrations with his leadership, Labour MPs sought to oust Corbyn, but failed—due to his reinstatement by party members. The parliamentary party was stuck with a leader that it plainly did not support, undermining effective opposition. Crucially, a leader imposed on MPs against their will was unlikely to be a credible prime minister, due to the inability to command the confidence of the House of Commons. In summer 2019, at the height of the Brexit arguments, the importance of this in opposition became clear. Serious talk of forming a cross-party “unity” government to break the Brexit impasse was undermined by the fact that Corbyn, lacking support even from his own parliamentary party, could not build a Commons majority across the party divide—though a more widely-supported opposition leader might have managed to do so.

The consequences regarding Truss have been far more immediate and serious, showing the perils of deploying a similar grassroots selection system when the party picking its leader is in power. The gravity of the situation for Labour was at least masked by the fact that it was not running the country. In contrast, party members propelled Truss straight into the role of prime minister. In the initial parliamentary stages of the Conservative contest she had won relatively limited support—not entering the top two until the last of five rounds of voting. In the first round she attracted just 50 MP votes, against Rishi Sunak’s 88. In the final round, she won 113, narrowly overtaking Penny Mordaunt on 105, while Sunak stood on 137. Hence Truss had demonstrable support from fewer than a third of party MPs. Had there been a parliamentary run-off, many Mordaunt supporters might well have moved to Sunak, leaving him the winner. Instead, Sunak and Truss were put to a member ballot, which she went on to win by 57 per cent to 43 per cent.

The problems of Liz Truss’s brief premiership were not a direct result of this process, but it played a very significant part. The biggest problem was the “mini budget”, which destabilised financial markets, leading to U-turns and the sacking of the chancellor. The recklessness of these decisions, as I have suggested elsewhere, had constitutional roots—Truss’s sidelining checks and balances (experts, independent regulators and MPs), which had become commonplace under her predecessor Boris Johnson. But her support in the parliamentary party was also very shallow, which didn't help. Fundamentally, the candidate who was almost certainly the MPs’ choice had warned of the very economic problems that she went on to encounter. Many Conservative MPs looked on in horror during the summer hustings when Truss insisted on her unfunded tax cuts, accusing Sunak of perpetrating “project fear” when he suggested that they would spook markets, driving a slide in the pound and a hike in interest rates—ie exactly what went on to occur. MPs had been shut out of the final decision over who should lead them, but very quickly found themselves dealing with the fallout.

With Truss gone, the question has arisen of a possible Boris Johnson comeback, notwithstanding his poor track record of integrity and standards, which led to mass ministerial resignations in July and his forced removal. The 1922 Committee has sought to limit the risks by setting a high bar of 100 MP nominations to enter the contest. This time there will also be an MP “indicative” run-off between the final two, so the members know which candidate MPs prefer. But despite the earlier warnings, the membership ballot remains. This opens up a nightmare scenario, that grassroots members explicitly reject the MPs’ choice. If one candidate (maybe Johnson) narrowly exceeds the nomination threshold they could end up in the final two—perhaps against another candidate with far greater backing from the parliamentary party. Should the candidate with less MP support prove to be the members’ choice, the parliamentary party would be straight back to where it was with Truss, only worse. If that candidate were Johnson, the prospects for unity would be extremely bleak.

Parliamentary systems such as ours rest on the government having stable support in parliament, with the bedrock of that support being the governing party’s MPs. To create a process where those MPs can be overridden, and burdened with a leader in whom they have no faith, is to undermine the system itself. The effects of such a process have been deeply destabilising in terms of Corbyn and Truss. To reproduce that for a third time, with the UK already in crisis, facing deep economic problems and international incredulity, could be devastating. Whatever the outcome of this week’s contest, parties urgently need to rethink these procedures.