What if MPs, not party members, chose leaders?
The last few leadership contests might have played out very differently
Who should decide who leads a political party — party members or Members of Parliament?
It’s a debate that has been making the rounds lately in political circles. While the Conservative Party of Canada is in the midst of a long leadership race that has engaged some 675,000 members, the Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom is embarking on a quickie leadership contest to replace Boris Johnson.
In the U.K., party members will have the final say. But it was Conservative MPs who whittled down the list of contestants to just two: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
Their names will be put to party members who’ll decide who the next leader of the party and prime minister will be. But it was MPs who went through the balloting to decide on their final two out of the eight caucus members who originally put their names forward.
Even this system, though, is not without its detractors: “if MPs do not feel qualified to pick a prime minister, they should not feel qualified to vote on a law.”
Meanwhile, in The Globe and Mail Andrew Coyne made the argument for doing away with the system we use in Canada to decide who leads our parties, instead putting the decision into the hands of MPs.
I have to say it’s hard to disagree with Coyne’s take, which largely boils down to this:
Leadership contests decided by who can sign up the most new members de-values long-term membership in a party and encourages rule-bending or rule-breaking to get the edge.
These new members rarely stay very long and are often single-issue voters who have no interest in the party, and might be hostile to the winning candidate if their choice doesn’t win.
The leader is accountable to those fly-by-night members, not the MPs he or she is supposed to lead in the House of Commons, further diminishing the importance of our elected representatives.
The skills needed to win a leadership contest often have very little to do with the job of actually leading a political party. It’s even possible for a party to be hijacked by a divisive candidate who is utterly unacceptable to a whole swathe of the party they take over — see Donald Trump in the United States or Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom.
In the Canadian context, the ship has likely sailed on a change to our leadership contests. Nearly every major party at the federal or provincial level uses a variation of this membership-sales-drive contest. Those that don’t still rely on the older, but somewhat similar, delegated conventions.
And it has been more than a century since the Liberals or Conservatives last left the choice of leader to their parliamentary caucus.
Would caucus choice remove the power from members entirely? Is it a power-grab by an elite far removed from a party’s grassroots? Not necessarily — remember that nominations are largely decided at the riding level by local members. A system that limits leadership votes to caucus members (or, to expand the pool a little, candidates of record) might actually increase the importance of being an active participant in your local riding association.
There are certainly some advantages to the current model. In a perfect world, it could be used as a positive tool for political engagement. You often hear politicians and political staffers citing leadership races as what initially got them hooked on politics. From the party perspective, leadership contests mean an influx of members, money and contact information that can subsequently be mined for more donations.
But, let’s put aside the question of whether parties should move to a different system. Let’s instead focus on what would have happened had political parties used a different model in the past.
If MPs had chosen past party leaders, those leadership races might have been very, very different. Candidates would have put their names forward (or kept them out) based on their ability to win over the existing caucus. Being a sitting caucus member might have been a decisive factor. How MPs voted might have been influenced by caucus dynamics rather their assessments of what the membership wanted.
This being the case, it is impossible to know who would have won past party leadership races had caucus, not party members, made the final decision.
But since it’s fun to play “what if?”, let’s look at how some past contests might have played out differently.
In this hypothetical exercise, I’m only counting MP endorsements (not senators) that were made during past races, and excluding from consideration those MPs who did not make an endorsement.
I’m also allowing sitting caucus members to vote for themselves, and for non-caucus members to be candidates.
Lastly, I’m assuming MPs stick with their choice throughout the balloting. In reality, some would move around between voting rounds based on where the winds were blowing. But let’s leave that complicating factor aside.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it.