Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Abolish formal leadership elections?!?!

On Boris Johnson's blog there's a Spectator editorial on the Conservative leadership election which ends with the comment:

Better still, it would be a fine thing if the Tory party could dispense with the agonies of a contest - in which faction is inevitably entrenched, and scars can take a long time to heal - and allow the leader to 'emerge'. The 182 cardinals don't seem to have any difficulty in Rome. Why should the 197 Tories? Bring back an enlarged Magic Circle.

For those who are wondering what an illusionist's society has ever had to do with a political poarty's leadership election, the "Magic Circle" was the description famously given to the way that before 1965 Conservative leaders would "emerge" from the Party after consultations to see who was acceptable (not necessarily the most popular) to the Party as a whole, including consulting the MPs, peers and the representatives of the voluntary wing of the Party (although some of all three have long asserted that they were never consulted in particular individual elections). Sometimes a single undisputed leader would emerge but on other occasions there would be several names in contention and no-one knew who had "emerged" until they received the summons to the Palace. The 1963 contest was especially bad as it took place at the Party Conference in Blackpool, with about four or five different candidates and supporters campaigning in one way or another. No-one was quite sure just how Lord Home had "emerged" when everyone seemed to be backing either Rab Butler, Quentin Hailsham/Hogg or Reginauld Maudling. This led to calls for leaders to be elected in a more transparant process, which allegedly began in 1965 when MPs only started electing the leader.

One of the key points that should be bourne in mind is that the system was not looking for the most popular candidate but for a leader who could unite the Party as a whole. In many of the contests there was one candidate who had very strong support in large parts of the Party but also a lot of opposition. The prospect of a leader who headed a divided Party from the start was not one that many found appealing.

Indeed if one goes righht back to the last time before 1965 when the Conservatives did arrange a formal election it was not a set of circumstances one would want to repeat. The Party had only just emerged from a series of destructive feuds over tariff reform - far surpassing Europe as a divisive issue and even worse as the position which won out was deeply unpopular in the country at large - and had also divided over reform of the House of Lords. Faced with a leadership candidate from each of the two wings of the Party it is unsurprising that there was widespread relieve when both sides agreed to stand down in favour of the compromise candidate, Andrew Bonar Law, who would have got very few votes in the poll of MPs that was planned. Ever since then Conservatives have tried to find a similar unifier.

Leadership elections are indeed divisive - one has to ask how much of a mandate a candidate who gets less than 25% of support in a first round ballot or who only escapes elimination by a single vote can unite the Party on Day One. There is much to be said for the Magic Circle - it also took into account the opinions of those outside the Commons. But ultimately it was too secretive and difficult to trust. Nowadays politics comes under much greater scrutiny and there is far more openess, whilst deference has declined heavily. No-one would have confidence in such a system today.

Locking up all the MPs and keeping them there until they can agree a leader, as happens with the Pope, is a tempting prospect. But again would people have confidence in the system? What about those outside the Commons? And would the candidates get the opportunity to prove themselves in the storms that always erupt in leadership elections?

Ultimately there seems no way back. If a single candidate emerges so clearly that there is no point in anyone else standing, as happened in 2003, then it is possible to avoid the endless rounds of voting and feuding - but this is a rare exception to the normal trend. Normally there are going to be several candidates and a formal election is the only real way to choose between them.

The real problem lies not in how the leader is choosen but how the Party is willing to get behind them and trust them. The Labour Party has a long history of fiercely disagreeing with the leader of the day but has never deposed a leader - instead if the Party wants to change the policy it uses the Party processes to change the policy. By contrast the Conservative leader is set up on a pedastal and for many the only way to change the policy is to change the leader. The media do not help, providing free megaphones to critics and always trying to find a story about divisions and unstable leaderships, and there are too many Conservatives who are too willing to help them. Whoever becomes leader must have the full support of all the Party at all times, otherwise the next four years will be like Groundhog Day as yet again an attempt to take the Party in the sensible direction is derailed in order to appease diehard nutcases. Let's hope that 2005 sees changes not just in who leads the Party but also in how it is willing to be led.


Anonymous said...

Why all the Tory party members need to be involved in choosing a leader is beyond me. As a humble member myself for a couple of decades, I'd much rather see the party win elections, and am unconvinced that I possess the necessary skills to determine who the leader to get us back into government should be. By the time the BBC and the rest of the media have finished clobbering the poor chap in the scrum of an election, he'd look quite different from the bod I'd voted for in the first place.
Mark of Croydon

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

On the realpolitick level it is rather hypocritical of a party that when in government imposed all member ballots on the trade unions to turn around and not follow the same course for its own elections! And then for some years party membership has been advertised as a way to have a say in choosing the leader - many who have joined for that reason may now feel they have been sold a pig in a poke.

The real question is just who does have the skills to select the leader who can break the party out of the electoral rut and make it a winner again, which means being able to advance in the Midlands and North especially. Is a Parliamentary party that seems even more biased to London and the South necessarily qualified to do that?


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