Party leadership elections are democracy at its bureaucratic worst

Two weeks after the UK voted to leave the EU and its next prime minister is set to be chosen by just 155,000 people. Labour is, in parallel, being held hostage by 250,000 members who voted for Corbyn last year and have said they will do so again, despite the resignation of 65 MPs from the shadow cabinet. We have a situation where elected representatives are pitted against party members for their choice of leader.

This is democracy at its bureaucratic worst. The system of paid party members choosing their leader makes sense when the political system is dominated by two parties, and membership is commonplace. That is no longer the case – and there is a decent debate to be had about if it ever was. As of August last year party membership was at an all time low. Less than 1% of voters were registered to the Conservatives, Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat or UK Independence Party.

It should be noted following Ed Miliband’s ill-fated £3 membership fee Labour’s membership has risen dramatically with the total now estimated to be around 515,000. This is in-part a response to the failed coup d’etat by MPs against Corbyn and the Brexit result.

However, I find it preposterous that only 1.4% of the 11.3 million people who voted Conservative in the last election will get to choose the party’s next leader, the new Prime Minister.

Equally, Corbyn’s support comes from less than 5.3% of Labour’s 9.2m voters which – following the shadow cabinet exodus – leaves the country without a credible opposition.

If Brexit has taught us anything it is that huge swaths of the UK electorate feel left out and ignored by Westminster.

Tight control over party politics by a vocal minority is not going to help. Whoever the next Prime Minister is (please God, not Leadsom) she cannot claim to have a democratic mandate.

To say it is the Conservatives, not the leader, that has the mandate to govern is only half the story. David Cameron has exemplified a Presidential Prime Minister. He was a large part of the party’s popular appeal in 2015, arguing otherwise would be constitutionally accurate but politically blind.

We need to modernise and accept that the average voter is unlikely to be a member of a political party. A voting system which allows both party MPs and paid up members to have a say might offer fairer and more representative leadership contests.

In the second round of voting in the Tory leadership contest Theresa May won over double the votes from MPs that Andrea Leadsom, who came second, achieved.

However, that has no bearing on who wins overall and who is our new Prime Minister come September. That decision lies purely with the membership. By having a weighted voting system where, perhaps, MPs hold one half of the votes and party membership the other, leaders will be more likely to have wider electoral support, without alienating their grassroots support.

Furthermore, we will avoid the situation currently playing out in Labour where you have a hung leader whose MPs are not loyal, and who is more focused on fighting for his own survival than the good of the party.

Electing a leader who has the support of the majority of the party but a minority of its voters leaves them horribly at risk of making themselves unelectable. This is the trap Labour looks likely to fall into.

This autumn the UK may well find itself in the unenviable position where neither the Prime Minister or the opposition leader has the support of their MPs – and by extension the electorate – this would be a disaster and only spell further division in a country already in shock.

Parties need to begin to look outward and not inward. Battles for the heart of the party are now irrelevant, politicians face a battle for the heart of the country.

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