Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. He has also written extensively on conservatism and the Conservative Party.
It is easy to look askance at Labour’s difficulties, yet the Conservative Party is vulnerable, if not to the same extent, to the same problem posed by Jeremy Corbyn and the new style of politics. It could easily fall into a similar trap, and corrective measures will not be trivial to enact.
Even if Owen Smith pulled off the upset of the year and deposed Corbyn, Labour’s problems would not be over because Corbynism is a symptom of what has gone wrong, not the disease itself. The idea of allowing virtually anyone a say in the choice of leader, combined with free flow of real-time information about trends, means that an unexpected coalition can very quickly form to push an outsider to the front.
Helen Margetts and colleagues from the Oxford Internet Institute have shown how what they call political turbulence is endemic in Web-enabled politics. It is the same phenomenon that struck the National Environmental Research Council when it asked the public to name its new polar research vessel. Jeremy Corbyn is Labour’s own Boaty McBoatface.
Political parties are not charities or debating societies; they are intended to maximise the influence of a particular ideological viewpoint. They are as much about exclusion as inclusion. Most restrict the influence of less-committed members and non-members with simple barriers like a high membership fee, requirements that members demonstrate commitment before getting a say, or restricting decision-making to privileged groups (such as MPs, as with Labour’s leadership until 1983).
Uncritically unmindful of this, Ed Miliband changed the rules to widen access. Inclusive good; exclusive bad. But lowering barriers to entry opens things up for free riders who have a say in what the machinery does, but do not actually do the work themselves. Incredibly, no-one wargamed the vulnerabilities of the system (the Labour Party conference debate is remarkable for its lack of foresight). Finally, by nominating a candidate in whom they had no confidence, MPs jettisoned their already diminished influence in the process, even though it was already understood that the power to nominate was key to getting a congenial choice.
It will be hard to make Labour fit for purpose against the wishes of its clicktivist membership. Neil Kinnock spent years changing Labour’s rules to eliminate Militant, but his task was easier as he could represent himself as making Labour more democratic. Whoever alters Labour’s constitution now is making the party less democratic – a harder sell. Has anyone other than Tom Watson grasped that it is the system that needs to be changed, not the leader?
Why is this a problem for the Conservatives? I have in the past done a bit of research on Tory leadership contests (with co-author Andrew Denham), and the recent record is illuminating. When elections were introduced in 1965, MPs made up the electorate (this meant, for instance, that in 1975, Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Party leader, against the wishes of the party membership which overwhelmingly supported the incumbent Edward Heath). Nevertheless, against a background of widespread frustration about the parliamentary party which had trashed its own Prime Minister and rendered itself unelectable, William Hague altered the rules in 1998 to give a say to all members.
The current rules are far less inclusive than Labour’s, and the specific Corbyn scenario could not happen: the party cannot easily and cheaply be flooded with ‘registered supporters’; those wishing to affect the outcome cannot simply join and vote on a whim; a candidate who did not have the MPs’ confidence could be eliminated by them (as long as there were at least three candidates); and votes of no confidence in the leader from MPs alone are binding.
Does this mean the Tories are different? No.
The Hague rules have been used in four contests: 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2016. In 2001, the divided, traumatised MPs split three ways, eliminating Michael Portillo by one vote. The members had the choice of popular, experienced Kenneth Clarke (who narrowly topped the MPs’ poll), or untried serial rebel Iain Duncan Smith. To the external observer, there was only one plausible candidate. But the other bloke won (with 60.7 per cent of the vote).
This was a disaster, and Duncan Smith lost a no confidence vote two years later. In the build up to the ensuing leadership election in 2003, Conservative MPs indulged in a vast amount of scheming to prevent the members, now perceived as unreliable, from getting a say. We went full circle to the pre-1965 ‘magic circle’ system where the party leader emerged mysteriously from secret discussions with party whips. All the potential candidates, including David Davis, Tim Yeo, Michael Ancram and Clarke, declined to stand against Michael Howard, who was elected unopposed.
In 2005, the experience was happier; MPs eliminated Liam Fox and Clarke, while the members chose David Cameron over Davis. But Howard still manipulated the contest to maximise the chances of his relatively unknown protégé by dramatically extending the timetable, with an election months later after party conference – thereby inventing the concept of slow democracy seven years avant la lettre.
Finally, in 2016, Theresa May appeared the pre-eminent candidate to sweep up the post-referendum mess, but a running worry was whether the party membership would be seduced by the riskier alternatives of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom. Gove knifed Johnson, and the MPs got rid of Gove. That didn’t rule out the possibility that Leadsom, supported by only a quarter of MPs, might still beat May (60.5 per cent). In the end, a hostile Tory press nobbled Leadsom before the members had their say, and Theresa was in. Phew!
Of the four contests in which Conservative Party members have nominally had a say, no choice at all was presented to them in two, while in another they were forced to ruminate on the issue for seven months until Cameron’s name was as well-known as those of his opponents. 2005 and 2016 arguably broke rule three that “it shall be the duty of the 1922 Committee to present to the Party, as soon as reasonably practicable, a choice of candidates for election as Leader” if there was more than one nominee. In the only election in which the members had a say according to the rules, they made a spectacularly bad choice; it is possible that the MPs might have made the same one, but their lack of confidence in Duncan Smith would then have played out differently.
This shows, if nothing else, that the Westminster party is aware of the risks of a wider electorate increasing rather than decreasing any disconnect between the centre and the grass roots. Since Duncan Smith, the consultation of party members envisaged by the Hague rules has always been avoided by ad hoc measures, but the systemic issue is only a milder version of Labour’s. MPs are full-time politicians, in constant contact with the electorate, party members, business, media and interest groups. Party members, though passionate and sincere with non-political interests and contacts of their own, do not have such immediate access to the wider picture outside the party.
Political parties are there to deliver a particular outcome. Being inclusive or democratic will not necessarily help that aim, and will sometimes hinder it. Both major parties have extended their leadership election rules in the democratic/inclusive direction. Rowing back will expose them to the (justified) charge of decreasing democracy – damaging in these days of democratic fundamentalism. Yet without changing the systems, the risks of parliamentary parties having to work with leaders with little support in Westminster will remain for both sides.