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The Causes and Consequences of Political Chaos: MPs Versus Party Members

The genesis of the current chaos lies in the main political parties deciding to allow their members to choose their leaders, writes David Keys

Then Prime Minister Liz Truss delivers her speech at the 2022 Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Jacob King/PA/Alamy

The Causes and Consequences of Political ChaosMPs Versus Party Members

The genesis of the current chaos lies in the main political parties deciding to allow their members to choose their leaders, writes David Keys

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The current chaos in British politics has intriguing historical roots.

The fundamental problem is, arguably, a serious contradiction between the political parties’ leadership election procedures and Britain’s unwritten constitution.

Put bluntly, the evolution of the Labour and Conservative parties’ methods for choosing their respective leaders has ended up creating serious ambiguities within the constitution – ambiguities which have contributed to the current chaos and which may yet contribute to further chaos.

Britain’s unwritten constitution – as expressed in ‘The Cabinet Manual’ (the Bible on such matters) – says two potentially contradictory things.

First, that the monarch (usually on the advice of the outgoing prime minister) should appoint, as the new prime minister, the politician “who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons”. Second, it states that “the Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons”.

Clearly, in the case of Liz Truss, although the second condition was fully satisfied, the first criterion was not necessarily equally satisfied. This is because she didn’t even command the support of the majority of her own MPs. In the first ballot of the Conservative leadership contest, 86% of MPs did not vote for Truss; and in the final ballot, 68.4% didn’t vote for her.

Even when Boris Johnson was elected Conservative leader back in 2019, 63.6% did not vote for him at the first ballot and he barely had a majority in the final ballot of MPs (only 51.1% voted for him).

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With the process now underway for Liz Truss’ successor to be selected by the Conservatives, there is again ample room for further collisions between political and constitutional requirements.

The Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee – the organisation tasked with organising a ballot to elect the next leader – wants to organise and complete the election by the end of next week. If party members are allowed a real say, then it is again conceivable that a leader is elected who does not have the support of the majority of Conservatives MPs, let alone the House of Commons as a whole. On the other hand, if the membership is stripped of its right to fully participate, the party would clearly have other legitimacy problems, at least in the eyes of its membership.

At its heart, the current political instability plaguing Britain stems from a constitutionally-harmful clash between MPs and party members.

Liz Truss won support from only 31.6% of Tory MPs in the final ballot (and just 14% in the first one) but was backed by 57.4% of party members. Boris Johnson ultimately won 51.1% of Tory MPs’ votes – but attracted 66.4% of members’ votes.

The Labour Party has, of course, also experienced this collision between MPs and members. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was supported by only 15% of Labour MPs, but received the backing of 59.5% of Labour Party members and registered and affiliated supporters – although, in constitutional terms, this mismatch was irrelevant because the Labour Party was at that time in opposition, and so it’s members were purely choosing a party leader, not a prime minister.

But in the case of Truss, the mismatch had huge constitutional implications – because when she was appointed by the Queen as Prime Minister, she clearly did not command ‘the confidence of the House’. And the rest is (unfolding) history.

So how did British politics get itself into this horrific mess?

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Members’ Votes

In a sense, the genesis of the current chaos goes back to the 1980s and 1990s when both main political parties decided to allow their members to choose party leaders.

When members exercise that power when their party is in opposition, there are no constitutional implications – but when their party is in power, members end up choosing the nation’s Prime Minister. This has substantial constitutional implications, specifically when members elect a prime minister who clearly does not have the confidence of his or her MPs, let alone a majority of the House of Commons as a whole.

In 1981 and 1998, the Labour Party and then the Conservatives decided to take the crucial final job of choosing their respective party leaders partly or fully away from democratically elected MPs and instead give it, fully or partially, to their party’s rank-and-file members (who of course hadn’t been elected by anybody).

Those decisions meant that the UK’s unwritten constitution became dangerously contradictory – and that contradiction required the monarch to ignore either the requirement that the prime minister should be the majority party’s leader or that they must have ‘the confidence of the House’. Indeed, unless remedied, that contradiction risks drawing the monarch into politics at some stage – something that our constitution wisely says must never happen.

But solving the contradiction between the ‘leadership’ and ‘confidence’ elements of the constitution is easier said than done.

Although side-lining party members in leadership elections (while a party is in power) would solve the constitutional problem, it would nevertheless create other very serious ones.

In order to preach democracy, political parties need also to practice it – and, if they don’t, many of their rank-and-file members may become disillusioned and leave.

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That, in turn, would strengthen the power of party machines, turning them from genuine public movements, rooted in society, to de facto private companies. As a result of clashes between ordinary party members and professional politicians, that trend is already embryonically developing – and its implications are as dangerous as any constitutional ambiguities.

Both the ‘privatisation’ of political parties (i.e. the removal of member power) and the member/politician collision problem (and its constitutional implications) are likely to adversely impact British democracy.

Although the sort of political chaos that we are currently experiencing risks alienating the public from politics in general, side-lining party members may well ultimately have the same effect.

So solving the problem can’t be done as a quick fix. To avoid leaping from the frying pan into the fire will require a lot of very careful thought and consultation.

Our constitution has evolved slowly and organically over many centuries. Although Parliament has existed since the 13th Century, the position of prime minister, in the modern sense, dates only from the late 19th Century. And the position of overall party leader is an even more recent development – until the 1920s, the Conservative and Labour parties didn’t even officially have one. What’s more, until the Second World War, the prime minister was sometimes not even the leader of his party.

Our constitution, and the rules and procedures of political parties, have gradually evolved over long periods of time. Making them consistent with each other, in ways that fully respect party and public democracy, is the challenge now being exposed by the current chaos.

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