November 2003. Committee room 14 is bustling - the political life of Iain Duncan Smith is being decided by MPs. The death knell results sound at 7 O’clock. The leader is dead. Long live the Conservative party.
In reality, the Conservative party did what it always does – defenestrated their leader on the altar of political survival. The lurching chameleon of British politics changed its colours once again. This was the first time (but not the last) that the Tories deposed a leader elected by their members.
Party members are the “core supporters”. They can, though, hold more extreme marginal views. It’s well-known that, for Labour and the Conservatives, their members are to the left and right respectively of their party’s MPs and voters. And herein lies the problem of how we elect our party leaders in the UK.
There is a misalignment between aspirations of members and the goals of a political party. One is motivated by ideological conviction; the other has to appeal to the widest amount of voters in order to win a general election, including people who have completely different values to their party. This is why if MPs were able to choose their own leader, Labour’s tragedy – the 2019 general election – never would have happened.
Arguably, it seems as though members are not well-enough-informed on what it takes to be a good leader. MPs know how to win elections locally and nation wide, so they’re much more tuned into what voters want. Additionally, they’ll have worked with their colleagues standing to be leader, knowing if they’re up to the job or not. These wells of experience are knowledge that members could never have.
Choosing a leader can involve choosing a completely different direction for your party, and the power that leaders have within their parties is all but unlimited: choosing cabinets, policies, priorities, staff, etc. So, if a party wants to win elections – the most important function of any political party – it must have a leader who is competent, knowing how to manage these effectively. MPs can tell you who’s mad…but they can also tell you who knows what they’re doing.
However, one obvious, crucial requirement of any leader that’s often glossed over is the ability to command the support of their whole parliamentary party. This is unquestionable for any wannabe Prime Minister. No party should be in the position of the Labour party during 2016, whereby Labour 174 MPs expressed no confidence in the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, yet despite this he retained his position because the apologist party membership voted to back him regardless. It wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else and it shouldn’t be allowed in politics.
However, there is an argument for leadership reform that can unite all fronts...We have a political system of parliamentary representative democracy. MPs are the bedrock of that system. They are the political arm of the British people. Any figurehead elected by only parliamentary colleagues would have a legitimacy. MPs are representatives of each voter across the country, thus whoever is elected to lead essentially has a vote of confidence from all their colleagues' constituents.
By allowing MPs to elect their leaders, it addresses the problem of leaders not being backed by their parliamentary party, allowing MPs to give their leader a democratic mandate acting as the political representative of their constituents. The election-winning expertise of MPs will weigh on their mind when choosing, too.
Our leaders would then have something seeming to be lacking in politics – natural authority. The right to lead party, then country.
In a political culture where party members have more power than ever, this seems unrealistic, but it would be the best thing to improve the quality of our political leaders. Titans of the past – Wilson, Thatcher, Blair – are relics of ages gone by. Politicians with conviction, pushing the boundaries of what you could achieve politically.
For our politics to live up to the scale of Britain’s challenges, we need strong leaders. Strength is as derived from the others around us as from ourselves. Politics is a team sport, and our leaders should be the first among equals. This should be enforced from the start.
Let’s hope that some politician has the courage to do it.