Thursday 20 June 2019

Conservative democracy

There seems to be some disquiet about the fact that it is 160 000 or so Conservative Party members who will make the final decision as to who will become the next leader of their party and, in the present circumstance, our prime-minister.

 To find this curious is to ignore history.  It is only recently that party members have had any say in who should be their leader.  That was a matter usually left up to the MPs , and in the case of the Tory Party, not even all of them.

In the post war period Sir Anthony Eden was the long-standing heir apparent to Winston Churchill, and, when Churchill finally resigned Eden succeeded without, as far as I know, anyone at all being consulted.

After that, for a long period, Tory leaders "emerged."  The process was not all that public, but we understood that three "men in grey suits" would conduct "consultations"; one with the party's MPs, one with the party's peers in the House of Lords, and the third with the party chairs in the constituencies.  Then these three would get together and decide, if the party were in government,  whom the monarch should send for to become the next prime minister.

Thus Harold Macmillan rather than R A Butler "emerged" to take over from Eden after the Suez fiasco in 1957, and Lord Home (who demoted himself to Sir Alec Douglas-Home), again rather than Butler, "emerged" to take over when Macmillan resigned because he felt poorlier than he really was as a result of  a prostate operation in 1963.

The Tories narrowly  lost the election which followed in 1964 and the party took its first step towards modernity by deciding that their leader should be elected by its MPs.  Peers and party chairs were now cut out.

The rules required that the winner should have an over-all majority plus 15% in the first ballot. (Note that "super-majority" and think to mention it every time you're told that leaving the EU is our democratic duty because 17.4m people voted for it).  Edward  Heath did not quite achieve this but his nearest rival, Reginald Maudlin, withdrew and so Heath became leader of the opposition and, eventually prime minister when the Tories won their surprise victory in 1970.

Heath was prime minister for four years but lost to Labour twice in the two elections of 1974.  He was then persuaded to put himself forward for re-election, again solely by MPs, and to just about everyone's surprises, was beaten on the first ballot by the rank outsider Margaret Thatcher, although she did not get the required majority.  However,  she did on the second ballot,  became Leader of the Opposition and led the party to victory in 1979 (and again in 1984, and again in 1987 - thus sowing the seeds of most of our present woes.)

In 1990. while she was still prime minister, the (now) wonderful Michael Heseltine challenged her for the leadership.  She won, but not with the required "super-majority" and, to avoid humiliation in the second round, withdrew.  The second round was won by her favoured candidate, John Major.

(Note that the initial challenger, and favourite, didn't win. Let's hope history repeats itself.)

While Major was prime-minister he received much hassle from "The Bastards" as he called the Euro-sceptics in the party,  and at one stage was so frustrated that he resigned and challenged them to "put up or shut op."  He won the vote which, as far as I can remember, was still by MPs only.

When Major lost to Tony Blair's New Labour in 1979 he resigned and was replaced as party leader and leader of the opposition by the youthful William Hague  (leader 2001 to 2003).  I think this was the last time when the new leader was elected by MPs only although I cannot find confirmation  of this on Google.

Hague introduced new rules for the election of the party leader and I presume these are the basis for the ones under which the present procedure operates - ie the MPs whittle down the list to the final two and then the party membership decides.

So as far as I can make out the first election in which the members contributed to the choosing of the Tory party leader was in 2001 when, after Hague's resignation following the loss of the 2001 election,  the self-styled "quiet man", Ian Duncan Smith, was elected.  He lasted only  two years and was replaced without opposition by Michael Howard, he who had "something of the night about him"

Two years later IDS too resigned and David Davis and David Cameron were the two chosen by MPs to "slug it out" with the membership.  Cameron won and was leader from 2005.  Under his leadership he didn't actually win the 2010 election bit the Tories were the largest party and formed the ill-fated (from the Liberal point of view) Coalition.

To his surprise Cameron won an over-all majority in 2015 and, without a Liberal Democrat minority to blame  for preventing him from doing so, was forced to honour his promise to hold a Referendum on EU membership.  When, again to his surprise, the referendum did not come out as he'd, and most others, expected, he broke another promise, walked away for the premiership and left it to his successor Theresa  May, to sort things out.  The choice of Mrs May was not put to the members  as her opponent, Angela Leadsome, withdrew.

So, as far as the Tories are concerned, giving the final choice to the party members is a well established, though recent, procedure, which should surprise no-one.

As far as I know the Labour leader has, from their earliest beginnings, been elected by the MPs (and their entire shadow cabinet when in opposition).  However from 1980 to 2014 this was broadened to an electoral college, with a third of the votes allocated to the Party's MPs and MEPs, a third to individual members of the Labour Party, and a third to individual members of all affiliated organisations, including socialist societies and trade unions.

The 2015 leadership election  used a "one member, one vote" (OMOV) system, although a candidate needs to receive the support of 10% of Labour MPs in order to appear on the ballot.  Well-meaning believers in democracy signed Jeremy Corbyn's  papers so he could reach this 10% and "give the Left a voice", but never expected him to win

Leading the way as always on constitutional reform  we Liberal Democrat members have been helping to elect our leaders since 1976 when the parliamentary party narrowed the choice down to two candidates, David Steel and John Pardoe, who were subjected to a ballot a ballot of an electoral college made up of representatives of the various constituency associations, with their vote "weighted" by the strength of the Liberal vote at the previous general election.

Yes, we do believe in "fancy franchises."

That system lasted for only that one election and after that the entire membership voted after the parliamentary party had selected the runners.

This grafting of "participatory democracy" on to a system that is essentially a "representative democracy" causes problems, as the Labour Party has discovered and the Tories  may be about to.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'm still sulking about Margaret Thatcher being elected Tory leader. In a combined bet with a work colleague I gave him odds of 50-1 against Thatcher and England winning the fifth and final Test match out in Australia. (They had lost the previous four Tests.)

    1. Who won the test? I'm not a cricket anorak, but I found the Guardian's account of the behaviour of the crowd at the India-Pakistan match earlier this week,one of the pleasurable highlights of the month. Fun and enthusiasm all round. What a contrast to the behaviour of our politicians - and our soccer fans.

  3. thus sowing the seeds of most of our present woes

    Actually I think you'll find that was John Major, for forcing through the ratification of the Maastricht treaty by making it a confidence issue, and then not allowing the British public a referendum so they could reject it.

    You didn't mention the most hilarious modern leadership election of all, when the Liberals (with 12 MPs) tried to elect a leader under the Alternative Vote leading to six first-preferences for candidate A, three for candidate B and three for candidate C — the second preferences for B going to C and vice-versa, making determining a winner a mathematical impossibility.

    Candidate A, of course, won by default when the others withdrew, and went on to become the scourge of law-abiding great danes everywhere. Woof!

  4. I wsn't aware of the details of that election: must have programmed them from my memory.

    On your firs point, I really do think most of our problems go back to Thatcher. It's a big subject and merits a post to itself, which I'll write when the present distractions fade away, of I get fed up of following them.