OMOV can co-exist with stronger caucus control over the party leadership; the two are not mutually exclusive. What is being proposed in the much-watered down Reform Act does not go anywhere near as far as what either Labour or the Lib Dems do; indeed, it isn't even mandatory for parties to adopt any of its proposals. Would Canadian parties be willing to move in this direction? That, sadly, is doubtful, despite all of the extremely good reasons for why they should.

Some thoughts on party leadership

Is the use of One-member-one-vote (OMOV) incompatible with a parliamentary party’s caucus having a degree of control over the party leadership? This is a question that surfaced as MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act faced opposition in the Canadian Senate. One Senator explained his opposition to the bill on the grounds that it would (potentially) give sitting MPs the right to ditch the party leader, which would upset the party membership which had elected said leader. Maclean’s Aaron Wherry has an excellent piece dissecting this point.

On Twitter, Will Murray (@Will_Murray) tweeted the following:

1. Whether people like it or not, the Canadian political/parliamentary system has moved beyond the idea the caucus picks the leader. (link)
2. Each party now uses some form or one member, one vote, and for decades before that relied on delegated conventions. (link)
3. There’s no comparison what happens in Britain or Australia. In those places the caucus has an enhanced influence in picking leader. (link)
4. So when someone says they don’t support the Reform Act because of the chance the caucus could turf a leader they’re not…… (link)
5. Some luddite who didn’t read a civics book, they’re looking at it from a Cdn perspective as party membership has more influence here. (link)
6. OMOV, is here to stay. Parties (sadly) no longer even want to touch delegated conventions. Notion of a caucus vote? Keep dreaming (link)

Mr Murray appears to imply that because Canadian parties use OMOV to elect their leaders, this would be incompatible with giving the party caucus more (or any) control of any sort over any aspect of leader selection. But is this really the case?

In the UK, two of the major parties — or rather, one of the major parties and one formerly major party — use OMOV to elect their party leader.

Following their poor showings at the polls, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat Party Nick Clegg resigned as party leaders (but stayed on as MPs). Both parties are now in the process of holding leadership races. Both parties will be using OMOV to elect their leader. and what is interesting this time around is that both will use OMOV. While the Lib Dems have always used OMOV, this presents a major reform for Labour, which previously elected its leader using an electoral college in which MPs and MEPs, members of affiliated organisations, most notably Trade Unions, and party members, each got a third of the vote. There was also the oddity of some having multiple votes; for example, one might be a party member and a member of a union, and thus entitled to two ballots. Under the new rules, voting occurs on the one person, one vote principle: each member can vote only once, and all votes bear the same weight.

While both parties now use OMOV, which is the method Canadian political parties use to elect their leaders, both Labour MPs and Lib Dem MPs have a degree of control over who might become the next leader, which is a power Canadian MPs do not enjoy and which the Reform Act will not address. First, leadership candidates must be sitting MPs. This is not the case for any Canadian political party, and in Canada, it isn’t unusual for an “outsider”, an individual who does not have a seat in Parliament, to not only enter the race, but sometimes win.

Second, each MP interested in running for the leadership must have the support of a certain number of MPs in order to become a candidate, again, something which no Canadian party does. In the case of Labour, a prospective leadership candidate must have the backing of 15% of all Labour MPs (up from 12.5%), which, in the current parliament, works out to 35 MPs. If they can’t get the backing of 35 MPs, they can’t stand as a candidate for the leadership. The Liberal Democrats require a prospective candidate to have the support of 10% of MPs (although in this leadership contest, that rule does not apply as with only 8 MPs, that amounts to less than one MP). They also need the backing of at least 200 party members from at least 20 different local parties. In Canada, prospective leadership candidates usually need to have the support of a certain number of party members in order to become official candidates. This leads to candidates signing up hundreds of people as members of the party — instant members who may or may not have any real interest in the party — simply to get on the ballot paper. Other MPs will usually end up endorsing one candidate over another, but the support of sitting MPs is not required for someone to contest for the leadership. And again, it does happen that a candidate with very little caucus caucus support will emerge victorious.

Lastly, Labour and Lib Dem MPs have control over removing a sitting leader and triggering a leadership contest. In the case of the Lib Dems, a leader can be removed by a vote of no confidence in the Leader being passed by a majority of all Members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons; or by the receipt by the President of a requisition submitted by at least 75 Local Parties following the decision of a quorate general meeting. For Labour, an MP who wishes to challenge the leader must have the support of 20% of the Labour caucus to trigger a confidence vote. What all of this shows is that Canadian political party leaders owe no loyalty at all to their caucus since the caucus plays no role in securing them the leadership.

OMOV can co-exist with stronger caucus control over the party leadership; the two are not mutually exclusive. What is being proposed in the much-watered down Reform Act does not go anywhere near as far as what either Labour or the Lib Dems do; indeed, it isn’t even mandatory for parties to adopt any of its proposals. Would Canadian parties be willing to move in this direction? That, sadly, is doubtful, despite all of the extremely good reasons for why they should.

Limiting candidates for leadership to sitting MPs would be an excellent place to start. While many would probably argue that allowing non-MPs to run can revitalize a party, there are problems associated with this approach. The most obvious one is that the outsider doesn’t have a seat in the House. If he or she is chosen leader, they either have to wait until the next general election to enter the House, wait for a vacancy to occur and run in a by-election, or create the need for a by-election by “encouraging” one of their existing MPs to resign so that the new leader can run for that seat. Any new leader will want to be in the House as soon as possible, but the first two options may not allow for a quick entry. Thus the preferred route is usually by getting someone to resign their seat. Unfortunately, this isn’t always a guaranteed victory. Sometimes, the other major parties won’t contest the seat in order to guarantee that the new leader will win; sometimes, the other parties don’t play nice. And sometimes, voters themselves aren’t that happy that their MP was forced out and the new leader fails to win the seat.

Another problem with open leadership races is that an outsider might be only interested in the leadership, and not very interested in actually being an MP, or more bluntly, not at all interested in not being in power. A recent Canadian example of this occurred in the province of Alberta. Jim Prentice, a former federal Cabinet minister, was elected the leader of the governing Progressive Conservative Party. Mr. Prentice did not have a seat in the provincial legislature and so ran in a by-election to gain a seat. As premier, he called an early election which his party lost badly, although Mr. Prentice himself won his seat. However, he resigned that night as party leader and also as an MLA, which seemed to demonstrate that his interest in provincial politics was limited to being the premier of the province. At least Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have stayed on as MPs, as did former Labour leader and PM Gordon Brown following the 2010 General Election.

The UK Conservative Party caucus exerts even more control over leadership candidates. It takes 12% of the party caucus to trigger a confidence vote in the sitting leader. If that vote is successful, the leader must resign and a leadership race called. The defeated leader cannot run again. Like Labour and the Lib Dems, only sitting MPs can put themselves forward as candidates. Where the Tories differ from the other two parties is that party members don’t get to vote until the race is down to two candidates. If several candidates put themselves forward, only the caucus votes. If no candidate emerges with more than 50% support, the last place candidate is dropped and and caucus votes again. This continues until only two candidates remain (unless one candidate receives a majority before there are only 2 candidates left. Once down to two candidates, ballots are then sent out to party members.

Australia’s main parties, Labor and the Liberals have even stricter leadership rules. In fact, until recently, party members had no say at all in the leadership selection process. Labour changed its rules in 2013. Under the new election procedures, the first such change in the party’s 122-year history, the Labor leader is now selected by a ballot of all sitting MPs combined with a ballot of the party’s members, with each ballot having a 50 percent weighting in determining the final outcome. The change in procedure was billed as a response to the events that led to the ousting of Rudd as prime minister in the leadership coup organised by factional leaders within the Labor Party caucus on June 23–24, 2010.

Virtually insurmountable barriers now exist to such overnight challenges. Under the new rules, a leadership ballot aimed at removing a Labor prime minister can only take place if 75 percent of caucus members sign a petition—and only on the basis that the leader has “brought the party into disrepute.” Under the new rules, even when the Labor Party is in opposition, its leader can only be challenged after a petition signed by 60 percent of caucus members.

In contrast, it takes only one Liberal Party MP to challenge a sitting Liberal Party leader.

For more insight into how the Australian Labor Party used to function, I invite you watch this three-part series, The Killing Season, which began this week on Australia’s ABC network. Part 2 will air next week, and the final instalment the week after. There is no geo-block on the series, but I do not know how long it will be available online.


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