Changing leader mid-term

A composite image of  Truss courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture via Wikimedia Commons and Sunak: courtesy of HM Treasury via Wikimedia Commons; created by Anthea Bareham

A lot has been said recently about the fairness (or otherwise) of an electoral system that permits our next prime minister to be elected by the tiny minority of voters who happen to be members of a particular political party. Some have claimed that it would be more democratic if the final choice were left to Tory MPs, because at least they have been elected. But would it?

Let’s take the constituency of Liverpool Riverside. In the 2019 general election, the Labour candidate, Kim Johnson, held the seat with 41,170 votes. The Conservatives’ candidate, Sean Malkeson, was second with just under 10 per cent of the votes obtained by Ms Johnson (4,127 votes). Mr Malkeson’s share of the vote was the lowest share of votes cast (7.82 per cent) of any constituency where the Tories fielded a candidate (excluding Northern Ireland where the Conservatives are very much a minority party). Another five constituencies in Merseyside were in the worst eight constituencies for Tory vote share in the country. The total vote share for the Tories in those six Merseyside seats was less than 9 per cent of votes cast, and less than 6 per cent of the registered electorate.

The Merseyside Conservative Association website boasts that it has “hundreds of members across the city”. It is those members – from the constituencies who appointed the six defeated Tory candidates – who will have the right to cast their votes in the final round for our next PM, whereas members of the party that appointed the six victorious MPs in those constituencies will not. Mr Malkeson and his five fellow-candidates, despite their very poor showing at the last election, will be allowed to vote for our new PM in the final round, but the six Labour MPs, who received nine times as many votes in that election, will not.

So, I’m not sure that leaving the whole process to 357 Tory MPs really is any more democratic than leaving it to 160,000 Tory party members. The choice is between leaving the decision to the Tory party members, who represent 1 in every 414 of the population (0.24 per cent), or to the Tory MPs, who represent 1 in every 185,500 of the population (0.00054 per cent). The fact that the latter are elected members of parliament and the former are not, doesn’t really carry any weight, in terms of democratic credentials, unless non-Tory members of parliament are allowed an equal say. In short, 357 Tory MPs are no more representative of our 66.22m population than are 160,000 Tory party members whose job it is to select the Tory candidates, some of whom go on to become MPs.

Some claim that it’s OK to change leaders as long as the new leader sticks to the policies upon which the government was originally elected; but how do you square that with the fact that the two remaining candidates are at loggerheads over crucial matters of policy? They can’t both be following the manifesto. In short, there is nothing democratic about what is going on here.

Of course, it will sometimes be necessary for a ruling party to change its leader mid-term, and that will not always be due to a revolt within that party, as was the case here. There will be occasions when the leader is doing a decent job but is forced by circumstances (e.g. illness) to move aside. In all cases there ought to be an orderly process for the job to be passed on to another person. One such process could be that the rules for the succession are made in advance, like the rules for the royal succession, or the USA’s system, where the vice president automatically takes over if the president cannot continue. Surely anything is better than the undemocratic and unprepossessing shambles that we are currently having to endure.

But, if we really want democracy, then we need a truly democratic system for electing MPs, where the votes cast count equally. About 40 years ago I pledged that I would never vote for a political party that does not support some form of proportional representation. I have stuck to that pledge through thick and thin, with the inevitable result that my vote at general elections, on almost every occasion, has been ‘wasted’. (N.B. ‘wasted’, not ‘spoiled’,” though in effect it amounts to the same thing). Despite the downside, will you join me in taking that pledge?