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  • Max Emmett

In defence of party democracy

Liz Truss, the UK prime minister, a white, blonde-haired, middle-aged woman, walking away from a white van and another woman wearing hi vis
Short-lived UK Prime Minister Liz Truss. Photo by Gareth Milner, licensed under creative commons.

When electing Rishi Sunak as their leader, and hence Britain’s Prime Minister, the Conservative Party took dramatic action to cut party members out of the process. The ‘1922 Committee’ of MPs that runs the selection process opted to raise the MP nomination threshold from 20 to 100 MPs, a move clearly designed to leave only a single candidate left standing. This differs from the formal process that sees Conservative MPs whittle down candidates over a number of rounds and then leave party members, (party supporters paying just £25 a year and numbering around 180,000), to select between the final two candidates. This process had selected the previous two Conservative Prime Ministers, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, with the members ballot being partially blamed for landing the country with the disastrous Liz Truss premiership.

Few other subscriptions give members such power. That a small and self-selecting group of individuals is given a say over the leader of our country, particularly a group that neither looks or thinks like much of the rest of the country, is seen by many as an insult to our democracy and a dangerous indulgence of an out of touch party. Some argue instead that this duty should be left solely to Conservative MPs, those that have a mandate from the electorate. Clearly, any process that can elect Liz Truss as Prime Minister should be viewed with great suspicion. However, I argue that the Conservative party suffers from a deficit of democracy rather than too much and that as well as retaining the party members role in leadership selection, this should be supplemented and in effect constrained in impact by giving members more direct influence over policy.

Firstly, the existing system was wrongly blamed for causing rather than simply highlighting faults in the Conservative Party. The last two leadership contests to have gone to the members offered them a choice between current or former holders of great offices of state (the Chancellor of Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary) including some of the longest serving cabinet ministers. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss both served as Foreign Secretary before becoming Prime Minister. If they were not fit to be put to members, then they should not be occupying the positions they were already in - and it is not the fault of members for assuming they are qualified for the role.

Secondly, the risk of electing the second choice of MPs and thereby causing difficulty in parliament will always be present in a leadership contest unless a candidate can command the support of the 325 MPs needed for a parliamentary majority. Even the support of the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs allows irreconcilable supporters of other candidates to wreak havoc with a legislative agenda, as Rishi Sunak may soon find.

Finally, leaving the choice up to Conservative MPs is no guarantee that poor candidates will not get through. In 2019 the majority of Conservative MPs opted to back Boris Johnson, a candidate many of them themselves viewed to be a self-serving liar who was advocating for a catastrophic economic policy (an exit from the EU without a deal). They did this largely out of a sense of self-preservation to avoid what they saw as imminent electoral wipeout. The crises and bad choices of Liz Truss’s six weeks as Prime Minister may be blamed on the membership, but those of the last six years lie squarely at the door of Conservative MPs.

Of course, ejecting the Conservative Party from government may solve some of these problems. But there is a deeper point to make on behalf of party members getting a say over how their parties operate. The reasons why we should prefer greater party democracy are that it better suits a normatively desirable account of democratic contestation, and that it better anchors party policy preferences over time.

Many philosophers who argue we should see democracy as intrinsically valuable view elections as a forum in which citizens choose between substantive conceptions of justice. Laura Valentini argues persuasively that democracy is a requirement of justice where there is deep disagreements over justice, whilst Thomas Christiano sees it as a forum for publicly advancing competing interests. Democracy is where we can decide which values we care about and which policies best embody these values. If we believe that politics is concerned with these important questions, it is important that we as citizens have different substantive conceptions of justice to choose between.

These substantive conceptions of justice are the primary motivating factor for party members, and at its best internal party democracy is a deliberation on these values. Conservative party members elected Liz Truss because they found her vision for the country compelling. No one else may have done so, but it is not illegitimate for members to endorse such a vision.

The problem in this case was that Liz Truss’s policy programme of sweeping debt-financed tax cuts was a dramatic change from what had preceded it and was introduced all at once with the change in leadership. If given a greater say over party policy as well as leadership, Conservative members may have constructed such a policy platform over time rather than suddenly allowing it to be imposed via the relatively rare event of a change of leader. Whilst this policy platform was both reckless and hugely unpopular with the country at large, it is the relative lack of party democracy that allowed for it to suddenly become national policy halfway through a parliament. If the Conservative party had reflected its members’ views over the long term, they would have been put to the country in a general election and could have been rejected there. Parties that are more ideologically coherent over the long term present clearer choices to voters and allow them to select between competing conceptions of what kind of country they want to live in. The current system both dilutes these ideological choices and exposes voters to the risk of handbrake turns when members are occasionally allowed to reassert themselves.

Anchoring party policy in a more substantive conception of justice, also partially shields it from other, narrower and more problematic influences. If it is not members who choose, who does make policy in the Conservative party? Whilst there are a number of pragmatic and ideological considerations that the leadership considers when making much of its policy, it is undoubtedly the case that Conservative party has a keen eye on electoral advantage. This leads to policy-making that can be heavily influenced by press and donor interests that enable their formidable electoral machine or policies tightly targeted at their winning electoral coalition at the expense of other citizens’ interests. In the best case, parties can switch between positions to pursue electoral interest, undermining the substantive choice of voters between substantive and coherent positions. At worst, parties can aggressively pursue electoral advantage at the expense of both ideological coherence and good policy. Whilst party members do, of course, have one eye on their party’s success and what is popular in the country, party democracy roots legitimate compromise with public opinion with a more enduring conception of justice for the country.

When citizens vote at a general election they are voting for a party to form the government. This is how we can justify and understand the wide discretion that ministers have when running a department and how various partisan policy advisors never elected to parliament can have a say in government. Voters understand this and are far more likely to know which party they voted for than the name of the candidate. Party members are an essential part of the identity of these parties. They make up its internal debates, they do the hard work of taking its message out to voters and they currently elect their leaders. Whilst we may legitimately question the choices they make, the proper forum for deciding this is in general elections where citizens deliver final judgement on parties.

Giving party members a say over what their parties actually believe and do in government helps to give citizens a real choice between competing visions of the country and provides a mechanism to anchor governments in these substantive conceptions of justice. Shifting the balance of power from three hundred or so old-fashioned and out of touch Conservatives to another 180,000 old-fashioned Conservatives may not immediately solve any problems, but in the long term increasing party democracy strengthens democracy for all of us.

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