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UK politics shows something profoundly undemocratic in letting members choose the party leader

Political party membership has become more and more uncommon across Europe in recent decades

As the end stages of the Conservative Party leadership contest play out, both candidates are setting out ever more extreme policies in order to win over the approximately 160,000 members whose votes will decide the identity of the next Tory leader.

Liz Truss has been offering unfunded tax cuts while Rishi Sunak has been promising to change the UK’s landmark 2010 Equality Act which he accuses of promoting “woke nonsense”. Both candidates say they are committed to unilateral changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol that are likely to provoke a trade war with the EU.

The fact that both potential future prime ministers are embracing policies that are considerably more extreme than those of the average voter should give pause for thought to those who see allowing party members, rather than MPs, as a more democratic way of choosing a party leader.

Allowing thousands of party members rather than a couple of hundred MPs to choose a party leader can appear more democratic. After all, not only are party members more numerous, they are also ordinary members of the public rather than elite figures deeply ensconced in the political system.

However, the opposite is the case. As the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair pointed out in his final book, Ruling the Void, political party membership has become more and more uncommon across Europe in recent decades, mirroring the wider decline in engagement with collective institutions in Western societies charted in Thomas Puttnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone.

In the UK, membership of the Conservative Party was in the millions in the 1950s. It is now well under 200,000. Party members, being committed partisans, almost by definition, hold highly unrepresentative views. Tory members are disproportionately old and wealthy and hold notably extreme views, particularly on Brexit. By allowing members to have the final say on who will be the party leader, and therefore the next prime minister, the Conservative Party rules pressure the next occupant of Downing Street to endorse policies designed to please a narrow, unrepresentative section of the electorate.

Indeed, it was the fact that the rules of both Labour and the Conservative parties allowed party members the final say in electing the party leader that caused the UK to opt for a form of Brexit considerably more extreme than that desired by most voters.

The overwhelming majority of stable democracies are representative democracies for a reason

Back in 2019, all candidates to replace Theresa May knew they had to win over Tory members to become prime minister. Given those members’ views on Brexit, a candidate whose views reflected the preferences of the wider UK electorate for a soft Brexit would have had no chance.

At the time, Labour had also been saddled by its members with a leader with views on a range of issues were not to the taste of the average voter. The 2019 election therefore saw UK voters left with Hobson’s choice in which most voters felt constrained to back a Tory leader offering an extreme Brexit policy to avoid electing a Labour leader who was popular with Labour members but distrusted by the general public.

Similarly, in 2022, a candidate whose policy preferences reflected those of mainstream voters would have no chance among Conservative Party members so both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are busy embracing ever more extreme fiscal and environmental policies and are entering into culture war issues which go down well with the most partisan share of the electorate.

The current approach sits uneasily with the parliamentary nature of the UK system. Boris Johnson’s fall highlighted how, unlike the United States, the UK is fundamentally a parliamentary democracy. Johnson, ultimately could not survive a loss of support among MPs. This is contrast to the position of Donald Trump who, having been chosen directly by Republican voters in primaries, can remain the dominant figure in the Republican Party notwithstanding that most Republican members of Congress would be glad to see the back of him.

However, the decisive role accorded to Tory members under the current Conservative leadership rules significantly undermines the central role of Parliament in the British system. The current approach effectively constrains Conservative MPs to give the keys to number 10 to the person chosen by party members.

While it can sound superficially democratic to decry the idea of small numbers of elected politicians deciding on the party leadership, it is ultimately the more democratic option.

MPs of course, are every bit as partisan as party members. But they are answerable to their constituents in a way that party members are not. MPs may be as attracted to extreme partisan policies as party members. But they have to be more open to reflecting wider public opinion due to the risk that extreme policies could ultimately cost them their seats in the next election.

What is more, a potential leader’s fellow parliamentarians will have significant experience of working with the candidates over time and will have a much more informed view of their suitability for the job.

More fundamentally, the overwhelming majority of stable democracies are representative democracies for a reason. Governing through democratically-elected institutions provides much greater scrutiny, stability and defence against populism and demagoguery. As the fact-free and extreme nature of current Tory leadership contest shows, the apparently more democratic option of allowing party members to elect leaders is in fact the opposite and is much more likely to result in out of touch and extremist policies that go against most voters’ wishes.

Ronan McCrea is Professor of Constitutional and European Law at University College London