The Reform Act and the issue of leader selection

Most opposition to the Reform Act seems to be focused on the proposal to allow a party caucus to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader. As I indicated in my first post on the bill, I am not opposed to this reform. I do, however, have some concerns that the Act does not go far enough; it does not allow the caucus to also select a leader (other than on an interim basis). In recent days, a number of columnists have also singled out this particular omission as problematic (Chris Selley, Dale smith and Jeff Jedras).

I’ve explained that, in terms of party leader selection, Canada is an outlier. Our party leaders are selected by the party membership, either using a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system or a delegated system with equally weighted ridings, etc. The important point is that the caucus – the party’s elected MPs, don’t carry more weight when it comes to electing a party leader. Parties in other jurisdictions, namely the UK, Australia and New Zealand either completely exclude party members from having any say in choosing the party leader, or limit their input. For that reason, a decision by a party caucus to oust the leader is perhaps less controversial because it was the caucus which selected that leader in the first place – or at least, was largely influential in the choice of leader.

Because the Reform Act seeks only to allow a caucus to possibly oust a leader, and not to change how party leaders are selected, this raises one very important question: would a leader ousted by his or her caucus be allowed to run again?

The answer to this question might seem obvious at first: of course not! They’ve just been ousted – why would they even want to run again?

Below the surface, however, things aren’t quite as black and white. What if a party leader was very popular with the party members, but not with the caucus? What it the leader was an absolute nightmare to work with – controlling, abusive, spiteful – we’ve all had managers or supervisors like that at some point in our careers. What if the caucus decided that for its own mental health, the leader had to go. Wouldn’t such a person, knowing that they were quite popular with the base, seek revenge by opting to run again?

In our current system, if a leader loses a leadership review, this occurs at a party conference and all party members attending vote on whether or not they still have confidence in that leader. Some party leaders have actually “won” leadership reviews – but decided that their margin of victory wasn’t good enough and stepped aside voluntarily. Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark did just that in 1983, after receiving “only” 66.9% support in a leadership review. The decision to revoke support comes from the same group of people that elected the leader in the first place. The Reform Act would change one aspect of this relationship, but not the other.

In other jurisdictions, because the party membership has either no say, or at best a limited say, in the selection of a party leader, it is simply a given that a leader ousted by his or her caucus will not run again. The UK Conservative Party, just to make things especially clear, include in their Constitution, a prohibition against a leader who has lost the confidence of his or her caucus running again. By not addressing this consequence of a caucus-led leader ouster, the Reform Act could create significant conflict between MPs and the party membership.

The main reason why many oppose the idea of allowing caucus to oust its leader is because this is not “democratic”. Perhaps it isn’t. The more important question, however, is this: where is the political accountability?

We have a form of representative government, meaning we elect MPs to represent us. This does not simply mean they parrot what we tell them to say, but that we entrust them to make decisions on our behalf, and to influence policies. Ideally, and this happens in other countries, they should also hire and fire the leaders who implement these policies. In Canada, however, this last part of the chain of political accountability has been severed. A leader largely elected by party members (because even the smallest party will have more members than it has MPs) isn’t accountable to his or her MPs. That leader can point to a larger, extra-parliamentary group to whom he or she is accountable. But those party members aren’t accountable to anyone.

But to many, being “democratic” matters more. They might counter that letting people – party members –  choose the party leader is a great way to engage people, to get more people involved in the political process. There isn’t really any evidence that this is the case. Actual data on Canadian party membership are close to impossible to come by, but it’s estimated to be, at best, 1-2% of the population. A leadership convention might result in a slight increase in party membership, but there is little evidence that this is sustained, or even increased, in the period between leadership races.

This interesting piece from 2011 on the decline of political parties in the UK contains some interesting statistics on party membership between 1951 and 2011:

PARTY MEMBERSHIP

  • 1951 Conservative 2.9m – Labour 876,000
  • 1971 Conservative 1.3m – Labour 700,000
  • 1981 Conservative 1.2m – Labour 277,000
  • 1991 Conservative 1m to 0.5m – Labour 261,000 – Lib Dem 91,000
  • 2001 Conservative 311,000 – Labour 272,000 – Lib Dem 73,000
  • 2011 Conservative 177,000 – Labour 190,000 – Lib Dem – 66,000 (Source: Estimates based on party reports and House of Commons Library)

What is particularly noteworthy is that the more “democratic” the party’s leader selection process became, the more their membership declined. Until the 1960s, UK Conservative Party leaders were not elected at all, but chosen after confidential discussions among Conservative “oligarchs” in backrooms. In 1963, the Party decided to let MPs vote for the leader. Only in 1997 did the Party opted for a two-stage system in which MPs would vote in a series of exhaustive secret ballots to produce two candidates who would then go forward to a final OMOV of the mass membership. Yet this loosening of the rules, allowing members to vote for a leader, has not increased party membership. The story is much the same for the Labour Party. From 1922 to 1981, only the Parliamentary Labour Party (MPs) had a say in selecting the party leader. In 1981, the party moved to an Electoral College which included MPs, Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated organizations (largely trade unions were allowed to vote, with each group weighted (MPs 30%, CLPs 30%, affiliates section 40%). Then in 1993, Labour adopted its current system, still an Electoral College consisting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (MPs and MEPs) – one third, CLPs – one third, and affiliates, also one third. Yet Labour’s membership is also in decline. Note – I am not implying that democratizing the leadership selection process directly led to a decline in membership – that occurred for a myriad of reasons. I am simply noting that opening up the process did not reverse the trend toward declining membership.

It also goes without saying that people who actually join political parties are hardly representative of the average citizen. They’re fanatics (and I do mean that in a nice way). Most people simply aren’t that invested in politics. While may critics of the Reform Act worry about parties being taken over by “special interest groups” if these reforms are implemented, one could almost argue that parties are already taken over by special interest groups – because I can’t think of a better term to describe a party member. I am not certain it is truly more “democratic” to leave party leader selection to such a small, highly unrepresentative group of people who are not accountable to anyone.

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