Saturday, March 24, 2012

Leading from outside parliament?

Party leaders don't always have to be in Parliament. Sometimes they can lead their party and seek the premiership from outside. Today we may discover if one such leader in Australia has been successful and if a party in Canada will pick another.

Right now the Australian state of Queensland is voting in its state election. As noted before (Leading from outside the chamber), the Liberal National Party is being led from outside the state parliament by Campbell Newman, until last year the Mayor of Brisbane. If he succeeds both in leading the LNP to power he will be the first Australian premier since at least federation to pull this trick off. Mayors of other big cities in other countries may wish to try and follow his example. But we won't know until later if he's been successful in taking the target sat of Ashgrove.

Canada has a much more developed tradition of this with many leaders being picked who do not initially sit in the parliament. Even premiers have won their party leadership and been appointed to office either before winning a by-election, such as current British Columbia premier Christy Clark, or going straight to a general election, such as current Yukon prmier Darrell Pasloski. Today is the final day of the New Democratic Party leadership election to pick a new leader for Canada's main opposition party. Two of the contenders do not have seats in the Canadian House of Commons, Brian Topp and Martin Singh, and if either of them wins (it's rather more likely to be Topp than Singh) then they will have to either try to enter the Commons via a by-election or else lead their party from outside parliament until the next general election, then hope they can pick up a target seat. The latter option was followed by the last two NDP leaders (Alexa McDonough & Jack Layton) but since then the NDP has become the official opposition and waiting may no longer be an option. The former route is more mixed - there's a partially observed tradition that a new leader trying to enter the Commons is not opposed by the other major parties, but not all follow it. Way back in the 1940s the attempted comeback by Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was scuppered when he lost his by-election to the NDP's predecessors. More recently the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory saw his leadership destroyed by by-election defeat in 2007.

Should we try this more often in the UK? Alex Salmond pulled it off in Scotland and there's no reason why Salmond should by sui generis. The obvious comparison to Campbell Newman would be Boris Johnson but there's equally no reason why someone who's been successful completely outside Westminster politics couldn't become a party leader and lead a bid from there. Or perhaps someone could take a mid career break from politics and then come back refreshed and renewed. I suspect it would take a smaller party to try this first - perhaps the Liberal Democrats in their quest to be "different" could give it a go? (But no, not Lembit!)

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