Andrew Rosindell is MP for Romford and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
The next Conservative leadership election will be of vital importance. Although we do not know precisely when it will take place, we do know that David Cameron will not be the leader of the Conservative Party going into the next general election. So whenever the election happens party members will, in effect, also be selecting the next Prime Minister.
If Cameron’s successor is to have the opportunity to properly establish himself or herself ahead of the 2020 election, it follows that the Prime Minister will, most likely, stand down a year or two ahead of it, hence triggering the leadership contest itself.
Before the internal politics of candidates vying for position begins, it is only right and proper, whilst the Party review is ongoing, that some serious thought be given to what the rules should be that will shape this coming leadership election. I believe that the time has come for the Party to change the rules that govern it. The current process heavily restricts the influence of Party members, and needs to be changed.
During the last leadership election in 2005, members only had a choice of two candidates (and both Labour and Liberal Democrat aspirants face lower barriers to being presented to their parties’ memberships than Conservative ones do). It is extremely important that in the upcoming leadership election Party members are provided with a proper choice of candidates. In my view, this would involve increasing the number of leadership candidates that can be presented to members from two to four.
I find it hard to find good arguments against this proposal. For me, it seems to be the only logical choice. In the last Conservative London Mayoral selection, for example, we had a healthy and robust contest that involved four different Conservatives competing for the nomination.
The recent Labour Party leadership selection process had many shortcomings, but giving members a choice of four candidates was not one of them. The flaw of the new Labour leadership rules was not that these prevented members from making a proper choice between different candidates; it was that they allowed so-called “supporters” to vote despite only paying £3 a head. My proposal would only allow fully paid-up rank and file Conservative Party members to vote.
In 2005, there were 198 Conservative MPs and four candidates battled it out to be Conservative leader. However, only two were allowed to be presented to rank and file members. The Parliamentary Party had to narrow the number of candidates down from four to two.
The candidates in 2005 were David Cameron, David Davis, Liam Fox and Ken Clarke. Each one of these candidates were very credible, and represented a distinct strand of the Party. Presenting all four of these candidates to members would have presented the latter with a more full choice. The question is: why didn’t this happen? What is the reason for reducing the number of candidates before members can have their say?
Though I disagree with Clarke on many matters, particularly our country’s relationship with the EU, he represents a strand of thinking within the Party that many rank and file members identify with - whether I like it or not – and I believe that the leadership contest in 2005 would have been richer if he was involved throughout.
Moreover, Fox, who was also a candidate in 2005, only just missed out being presented to members and securing a place in the final two. (He lost out on securing a place in the final round by only six votes). At the point in which Fox was knocked out of the contest there was increasing momentum behind his campaign. So who is to say that he wouldn’t have given both Cameron and Davis a run for their money if he’d reached the final stage? Who could argue that the final round of the leadership contest would not have been richer without his presence?
I would also make the point that presenting rank and file members with a choice of four candidates is also very good for internal Party democracy more generally. By the time that the next Conservative leadership election comes about, members will not have had a chance to elect a new leader for over a decade. And with more and more open primaries, members are even losing influence of their own constituency candidate selections.
Increasing the number of candidates in the final round of the next leadership election to four would be a powerful demonstration of faith in the membership, and would do a lot to heal what has often been a strained relationship between members and the leadership during the past few years. I would therefore suggest a method of electing a candidate that in some ways borrows aspects of the Labour system, but also makes much-needed changes that would be good in themselves, as follows.
First, if a potential candidate wishes to stand he or so should secure the support of 15 per cent of their Parliamentary colleagues. Bearing in mind that fact that we currently have 330 MPs, each candidate would need 49.5 signatures to secure their place on the final ballot to be presented to all members.
Next, each candidate able to secure the required number of signatures would proceed to a final round in which where rank and file members would vote. This would make it very likely that members would get to choose between four candidates.
At this final stage, only rank and file members would be able to vote, in order to guard against the kind of infiltration that plagued the Labour leadership election. Either each member could be given two votes – a first preference vote and a second preference vote – or there could be multiple rounds of voting by means of first past the post until a candidate receives 50 per cent of the vote. Most Conservative members that I have come across prefer first past the post.
The Party has on some occasions during the past few years funded full postal primaries in individual constituencies. This would be the first leadership election for almost a decade and, with national membership approximately 130,000, it would not be much more of a logistical challenge than running a constituency level postal primary for an electorate of approximately 60,000.
Ultimately, though, this is just one way of doing it. My overriding aim is for Party members to be given a proper choice. If anyone can suggest a better way of doing this, I’m all ears – but the principle of giving our members a wider choice of candidates has to be right.