Subjecting MPs to party membership votes is not democratic

Yesterday the Conservative leadership election resolved itself as the final Brexit-supporting candidate’s campaign imploded, leaving Theresa May unchallenged. Labour MPs look on with envy, as their own leadership election officially got started on the same day, as Angela Eagle formally challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the job.

What both these contests had  in common is that party rules give the deciding say to a vote of party members. It is the same for all Britain’s political parties. Back in the 1970s, when I came to political consciousness, such contests would be decided by party MPs alone. The Liberal Democrats (or its predecessor parties – I can’t quite remember how this evolved) were the first to move to an all membership vote. In their case, the parliamentary party was very small, and the party outside parliament relatively much more important. Participation in the party’s policymaking and leadership processes were designed to encourage people to join. Lib Dem activists describe this membership participation as “democratic”.

As membership of all political parties went into steep decline in the 1990s and 2000s, the other parties followed suit. Labour has done this with particular enthusiasm. Not only do they now put the leadership election to a full membership vote, but they allow the public to join as temporary members to take part. This extends the franchise to hundreds of thousands of people. The result last year was that Mr Corbyn was selected in a surge of enthusiasm from party members, charmed by the apparent freshness of his approach. This was described by his supporters as “democratic”. They still do. On the radio I recently heard one of his supporters use the words “democratic” or “democracy” in pretty much every sentence.

But Mr Corbyn never had much support in the parliamentary party, and he has not succeeded in winning Labour MPs to his cause. They have rejected him in an overwhelming vote of no confidence. And yet he clings on as leader, claiming that his “democratic” mandate trumps the views of MPs. This use of the work “democracy” to assert the primacy of party memberships is an abuse.

At the heart of any democratic system is the participation the public, or rather, a public. This public is not defined by personal preferences, such as voluntary memberships, but by some involuntary common factor – such as where they live. Excluding people undermines democracy. This makes it a messy, rough and tumble process. Without some kind of preselection process, there will be disagreements on most things. Unanimity is near impossible on large populations. Party memberships do not fulfil any reasonable definition of being “a public”. People join voluntarily, according to some understanding of shared values; they are essentially self-selecting. They may use democratic procedures to make decisions, but that does not make them democratic. The Labour selectorate is of an impressive size compared to other political parties, but it is still tiny compared to the population at large, and in no manner representative of that population.

This is one of the paradoxes of large-scale democracy. Political parties are essential to a healthy democracy, but they are not themselves democratic. They can only claim democratic legitimacy when they subject their candidates to a public vote. And that creates a tension for publicly elected representatives between the party that nominated them and the electors that voted for them. That tension is as old as political parties. It is a tension that has to be managed rather than resolved one way or the other. If a representative (an MP, say) ignores his party, then he is disregarding one of the most important things the public knows about him. But if he ignores the broader electorate, he is holding them in even deeper contempt.

The tension comes to a head when it comes to selecting the party leader, a position of enormous privilege in our political system. The MPs have a proper democratic mandate, and their cooperation is required in order for a leader to be effective. But in order to secure the commitment of party members, also very important for an effective political party, they must be given a say. Labour’s system for selecting its leader (courtesy largely of Mr Corbyn’s predecessor, the well-intentioned but lightweight thinker Ed Miliband) is based on wishful thinking rather than hard political calculation.

To most observers, it is quite clear that Mr Corbyn should step down, as a loss of confidence amongst MPs is fatal. The Deputy Leader should take over temporarily, while an open leadership contest takes place. Instead Mr Corbyn seems to view his MPs as traitors to the political movement he represents, and is clinging on, with every reason to expect that he will see off the challenge. There is some question as to whether he should only be allowed to re-stand if he fails to find 51 MPs or MEPs supporting him. But if he does not stand, there will be a huge rift in the party at large. As it is many MPs face de-selection.

The Labour Party is in enough trouble as it is. It somehow needs to reconcile three constituencies: middle-class public and third sector workers; white working class voters; and ethnic minority working classes. The white working classes in particular were strong supporters of Brexit, and feel alienated by the other two groups. And the party’s collapse in Scotland shows that its continued strength is not an inevitable fact of politics, as it used to think. But instead of confronting this existential crisis the party will indulge in a narcissistic battle of abstract nouns (austerity, inequality, democracy, etc.). They should be engaging in the hard graft of rebuilding community relations; listening rather than shouting. The prospects for the movement do not look good.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, seem to have a much stronger grasp of political reality. There was no nonsensical talk of “democracy” concerning the abortive final vote by party members. Their parliamentary party retains formidable powers in the selection of the leader (they whittle the field down to two candidates) and in holding the leader to account (they can eject the leader in a vote of no confidence). They will be very tempted to find a way of holding an early general election to complete Labour’s rout.

4 thoughts on “Subjecting MPs to party membership votes is not democratic”

  1. Thank you for this. The word democracy is used a lot, and it certainly needs clarifying.

    It seems to me that many people (the public?) have opinions, and the classic way we have to let them express them in an orderly fashion is the vote. The alternative is the protest march, or even public violence, but these don’t give a voice to the less demonstrative or extreme among us.

    But we get precious few opportunities to vote. I think we are liable to use those opportunities to try to express what we most care about, rather than to answer the question the vote has nominally put to us. So, I think it can be argued that Brexit, and the election of Corbyn were both not what they purport to be about. I suggest the ‘public’ is desperately trying to get a message through to leadership, but it is unclear what that message is.

    My guess is that Brexit was about British identity, and Corbyn was about a wish for vision and idealism in politics, an appeal for something more than management.

    When the public co-opt voting in order to express themselves, it makes a mess of the particular vote in question, but I don’t believe this necessarily means the public (or sections of it – there is always self-selection) should be allowed less votes.

    I believe that democracy should mean that ‘the public’ do get to make the big choices – identity, ideals, vision – while the management decisions are left to the professionals.

    Can voting be organised in this way ? Could we have referendums on a questions like: “Do we want wealth in our country to be more evenly distributed?” or “Are we willing to pay more for the National Health Service?”

    I suppose not. What do you think the way forward is?

    1. Certainly true that people use voting as a blunt instrument to make wider politcal points that the narrow one at hand. But I think the Labour party leadership vote is particularly flawed since the the people making it is a selective group. That’s fine if the impact was confined to that group, but not when there is a wider public interest at stake.

      And as for making democracy work better, |I think the best way is to localise it, so that people are asked to make smaller decisions on issues that more immediate impact to them. it takes time to acheive the sort of civic engagement that makes that work – though the Swiss seem to have managed it.

  2. Matthew

    If our politics are to improve, with greater engagement , then the members have to be able to vote on most aspects of the party if not all. The Scottish Referendum and the EU Referendum have engaged a lot of people in our politics, and more importantly educated them to a degree and it would seem that many have decided that they don’t like what they have found. That surely is a good thing in the longer term.

    The simple fact is that our parties are rife with careerists, elitism, privilege and the list goes on. Now the Tories do appear to have slightly more control at the parliamentary level but then they represent greed and prejudice. Labour are a shambles partly because of the result of entitlement and weighing votes mentality and the Lib Dems in my opinion gave up on their principles in too many areas for a seat at the top table.

    I don’t have a problem with it. I would like to see PR as well so that votes count and that might just engage more people.

    1. Yes I agree with your first statement – active participation in political parties achieves political engagement – and that must involve a say over policy and leadership. But it is not democratic to say that votes by activists trump the mandates of publicly elected officials. The two have to be kept in tension.

      Alas careerism in politics is surely an inevitability, given how important it is – but it should be better moderated. I think the best way is to strengthen local politics, and make this the foundation for national politics. PR would help – though we need to be wary of list systems.

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