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Artillery Row

A question of selection

The Sensible Centrists have made a flawed case against party members choosing leaders

Rishi Sunak’s surprise decision to call a general election is likely to lead to a Tory defeat. While Conservatives may claim to be fighting for victory, much of their attention has turned to life after Sunak. Pretenders for the Tory crown are angling for the top job — assuming they will hold their seats — and deals are said to be being struck. Some Conservative MPs, bizarrely, are being reported to be planning a coup to prevent the general election going ahead. 

Against this backdrop, it is worth considering a recent call by the outgoing MP Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, for Conservative Party members to lose their automatic right to vote in their party’s leadership contests. Brady’s intervention, which he made a few weeks ago, comes from the right, but this hasn’t prevented his view being adopted as consensus by “sensible centrists”, who also supported the senior Tory MP’s call to end his party’s “crazy” leadership rules. 

The former Tory minister and London Mayoral candidate Steve Norris, a one time ally of the “modernising” Michael Portillo, tweeted praise for Brady’s position. Allowing members to choose leaders, he said, had proved “a disaster for both parties” as it “gave Labour the wrong Miliband and Corbyn”. Even more prominent than Norris, was an intervention from Peter Mandelson who had previously made a similar call on his podcast How To Win An Election, a view endorsed by journalist, Tory moderniser, fellow peer and podcast co-host Daniel Finkelstein. 

For Mandelson and Finkelstein, the experience of Liz Truss and Jeremy Corbyn is indubitable proof that members cannot be trusted to elect leaders of political parties.  Expanding the franchise to an unrepresentative group of party members was a grave error — a foolish move which keeps a party in its comfort zone and renders it unelectable. Worse, their follies and ideological flights of fancy, opens the door to candidates who can pose risks to the nation’s finances (such as Liz Truss) or risk national security (in the case of, yes, Corbyn).  

For a party to remain anchored in the sensible, moderate, pragmatic, reality-accepting centre ground (which is usually code for the sensibilities of the likes of Mandelson and Finkelstein), the dim-witted party faithful — who knock on doors and pay their subs — must be denied a choice. Be they crusty sandal wearers with their Palestinian flags, or fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, they cannot be trusted. I expect their lordships Mandelson and Finkelstein would think this exposition of their views a little uncharitable. But it is not far off.

Yet the real problem with their analysis is what it ignores. 

Firstly, commentators often ignore that the extension of the franchise to party members was considered a “sensible” and “modernising” view in both parties.  Far from being an attempt to shelter political parties from mainstream opinion, these reforms were often introduced for the exact opposite reason: to connect with the voters. One example of this is the current leadership rules introduced by William Hague in 1998, who Finkelstein served under as a political adviser. Regretting his decision, the former Tory leader said in 2018, “I believed at the time that giving a vote to members would help to enlarge the membership and make it more representative of the country and aimed for million members of a revived grassroots organisation”. Therefore, enfranchising the Tory members was not an attempt to enhance the clout of the Colonel Blimps and Tory wives. Rather, it was an attempt to broaden the party’s appeal and drag the Tory Party kicking and screaming into the coming twenty-first century.  

Similar intentions have driven Labour. In 1981, the Labour Party held a special conference in Wembley aimed at deciding the leadership rules. One motion that was pushed by the pro-Tony Benn Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Tribune, was for the leader — who would become the leader of the whole Labour movement as opposed to merely the PLP — to would be elected by an electoral college (unions, Constituency Labour Parties, Labour MPs).  While Labour MPs were sceptical of the plans (hence Callaghan’s decision to resign earlier to allow MPs to choose his successor), Bill Rodgers and David Owen — who went on to found the breakaway SDP — unsuccessfully pushed for a full “one member, one vote” policy in leadership contests. Fast forward to 2013, Rodgers’ and Owen’s vision became a reality. After the controversy over the Falkirk selection, particularly the involvement of Unite in their support for Tom Watson’s staffer Karie Murphy, there were growing demands for reforms to the Labour Party’s relationship with the unions. This led to the Collins Review which proposed the abolition of the electoral college deciding the leadership and instead “one member, one vote” (with the ability of registered supporters to pay £3 for a vote). With the support of the Labour leadership, a special conference of the Labour Party backed the reforms. What exactly the Labour leadership rules had to do with the Falkirk selection row remains a mystery.  

Nonetheless, the reforms introduced by Collins — backed by Ed Miliband — were unanimously supported by the Blairite wing of the Labour Party. For Miliband in particular, it was an opportunity to demonstrate that he was a moderniser of sorts — that the image of “Red Ed” was unfounded. Some, such as arch-Blairite former Health Secretary Alan Milburn, argued in the subsequent 2015 leadership contest that the rules should allow the election to become a primary that moderates should use to their advantage. It is also worth noting that Milburn’s successor as Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt (another Blairite) had called for an open primary to elect Tony Blair’s successor eight years earlier. Her former parliamentary aide, the former Labour MP-turned-Telegraph columnist Tom Harris, also made a similar call during the 2015 contest. Aside from the irony that one of the few times Miliband followed “sensible” centrist opinion paved the way for Corbyn’s ascension, it shows that the weakening of MPs’ role in leadership contests was seen as an example of “modernising, moderate, sensible common sense”.   

Secondly, the problem with the analysis of Mandelson and Finkelstein is that it isn’t wholly true in its diagnosis. It is not clear that party members are incapable of choosing leaders who are electable or moderate, in contrast to MPs. Sometimes the opposite is the case. A key example of this is the 1997 Tory leadership contest. All polls of Tory members and Conservative Associations showed a very clear preference for Ken Clarke, who was the most experienced candidate and enjoyed most popular support in the country. However, William Hague beat Clarke among Tory MPs and he went onto a disastrous defeat in 2001. Had Tory members had their say in the 1997 Tory leadership contest, the Conservatives would have had a candidate who was not only less right-wing but more experienced and far more electable. It is also worth noting that in 1980, it was not Labour Party members who chose Michael Foot over Denis Healey but the Parliamentary Labour Party. Both examples should give those who oppose franchising members on grounds of electability and moderation pause for thought.  

Moreover, there are many examples where party members supported candidates endorsed by the likes of Mandelson and Finkelstein. In 1994, Tony Blair won more than 58 per cent of Labour Party members, beating Margaret Beckett and John Prescott. In 2005, David Cameron — who did not win the first round of the MPs’ ballot — received the support of almost 68% of Conservative Party members. In 2010, David Miliband — seen by many as the “brother who should have won” — won more than 54 per cent of Labour Party members in the final round of the contest. In 2020, Keir Starmer won more than 56 per cent of the vote, beating the Corbynite Rebecca Long-Bailey (albeit running on a platform somewhere in between the soft left and the Corbynites).  

By making what ought to be a fundamentally constitutional argument on sensible-ist grounds, centrist commentators make the wrong argument

“Ah but what about Truss and Corbyn?” says the ever-wise Sensible commentator. As for Corbyn, it is true that the former leader would not have won under the old electoral college or if the leadership contest was restricted to MPs. Nonetheless, the fault lies with the Labour MPs who nominated someone who they did not support to “widen the debate”. The key problem wasn’t so much the rules but their error of judgement. Had they been shrewder, Corbyn would not have become leader. As for Truss, Conservative MPs put her in the final round — not party members. Polls also showed the members’ favourites in the first 2022 contest were Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch not Rishi Sunak or Truss. It is also worth noting that by the end of the contest, Truss enjoyed more endorsements from her parliamentary colleagues than Sunak. Both Corbyn and Truss aren’t clear evidence that members ought to be denied a say. Rather, they demonstrate that even MPs can display a profound lack of judgement. 

None of this is to say that party members should have the final say over who becomes leader of a political party. They should not. This isn’t about electability but our constitution: a Prime Minister should command the confidence of their Members of Parliament. If they cannot do that, they should not lead. To have a situation where a Prime Minister could be imposed on a governing party by party members, who lacks the confidence of MPs, is unconscionable. The same should apply to the Leader of the Opposition, as alternative Prime Minister. This holds regardless of questions of electability or whether MPs are acting in their own venal self-interest — the voters will make a judgement on that at the ballot box. By making what ought to be a fundamentally constitutional argument on sensible-ist grounds, centrist commentators make the wrong argument for the right thing. This is worth bearing in mind if should after the 4 July our political parties heed Brady’s advice. 

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