When Conservative MP Michael Chong brought forward his Reform Act, which, before it was diluted to the point of irrelevance, would have codified in the Elections Canada Act how parties could trigger leadership reviews by giving party caucuses the right to set such an event in motion, many pundits were appalled by the notion that the caucus alone could do such a thing. It was “undemocratic” — the leader was elected by the party membership at large — how dare a handful of MPs go against the will of the membership!
Other political observers, myself included, argued that Chong’s bill didn’t go far enough. How party leaders in Canada (both at the federal and provincial level) are selected may well be very “democratic”, but this is at the expense of accountability. It also serves to concentrate power in the leader at the expense of caucus. But the larger problem is accountability — the party leader is effectively accountable to no one, not even the party members who elected him or her since that body is not a permanent one. Party members come and go, and the next time a leadership review or vote is called, the membership is likely to be very different. This is due in no small part to the fact that one of the requirements of being a candidate for a party leadership in Canada is that you must sign up as many new members as possible before the leadership vote. Whether those new members stay with the party beyond that event is questionable. This mode of leader selection is also open to being abused by a leader who is unpopular with his or her caucus, but still popular with the membership at large, setting up a potentially dangerous and certainly damaging power struggle.
This reality is on full display right now in the UK, where the Labour Party is facing a major leadership crisis. In 2014, Labour changed its leadership selection rules. Under the former system, a three-way electoral college chose the leader, with one-third weight given to the votes of the Parliamentary Labour Party (i.e., Labour members of the House of Commons and Labour members of the European Parliament), one-third to individual Labour Party members, and one third to the trade union and affiliated societies sections. Following a review, the electoral college was replaced by a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system — just like here in Canada. Candidates will be elected by members and registered and affiliated supporters, who all receive a maximum of one vote and all votes will be weighted equally.
Labour at least retained two important caucus controls, which no party in Canada has, and that is the requirements that 1) any candidate for party leader be a sitting MP, and 2) to be nominated, an MP has to have the support of 15% or 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), depending on the circumstances.
When Ed Miliband resigned as party leader following the 2015 general election, these new rules came into play for the first time. Long-time backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn ultimately emerged victorious, but the reality is, he should never even have been a candidate. Corbyn could not gather the 15% support required to get his name on the ballot paper. As the deadline for nominations neared, some Labour MPs who did not support Corbyn nonetheless “lent” him their support just to get his name on the ballot. They thought it would make the debates more interesting since Corbyn was significantly more left-wing than the other candidates. They figured he had no chance at all of winning — and didn’t want him to win — and thus believed there was no harm in giving him a leg up to get onto the ballot. If the rules had been respected, and they’d left Corbyn to his own devices, unable to garner the needed support from 35 of his fellow caucus mates, Labour would not be facing its current leadership crisis.
Corbyn the candidate attracted a large number of new members and “supporters” to the Labour Party. Supporters paid £3 to take part in the vote, leading to a near-tripling of those eligible to about 550,000 people. A majority of these new supporters who rallied around Corbyn were not traditional Labour Party members, and many were affiliated with more radical left-wing movements and causes.
Corbyn won the Labour leadership decisively, on 59% of first preferences. Four weeks after his victory, a left-wing political organization called Momentum was founded. Momentum describes itself as an organization that “exists to build on the energy and enthusiasm from the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign, to increase participatory democracy, solidarity, and grassroots power and help Labour become the transformative governing party of the 21st century”. However, members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) have raised concerns that groups including the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Left Unity, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty might attach themselves to Momentum as a means to rejoin the Labour Party. It also appears to some that Momentum members are more supportive of Corbyn than they are the Labour Party. Critics of Corbyn within the PLP are regularly threatened with deselection by members of Momentum, and during the current leadership crisis and no-confidence vote, Momentum supporters have labelled PLP MPs who don’t support Corbyn as traitors (or worse), and what matters most to them is that Corbyn survive as leader, not the overall well-being of the party.
Corbyn lost the no confidence vote held today, 172-40, and issued a statement in which he said:
I was democratically elected leader of our party for a new kind of politics by 60% of Labour members and supporters, and I will not betray them by resigning. Today’s vote by MPs has no constitutional legitimacy. We are a democratic party, with a clear constitution. Our people need Labour party members, trade unionists and MPs to unite behind my leadership at a critical time for our country.
In other words, Corbyn is arguing that the fact that he was elected by party members and supporters gives him the only mandate that matters. In truth, however, the PLP has a much larger democratic mandate: Corbyn’s mandate is 251,417 (his victory in the leadership vote) while the PLP’s mandate is 9,347,304 — all the votes for all of the MPs and MEPs combined.
This matter is far from settled. Labour’s new rules are unclear. For example, there were some questions raised about the very fact of holding a no confidence vote in the first place as the party’s constitution does not include any rules for such a move. There is also ambiguity over whether a leader who has been challenged is automatically on the ballot in a new leadership race. Any challengers to Corbyn for the leadership position need to be nominated by 20% of the PLP, or 51 MPs. Would Corbyn also need to be renominated? The party’s National Executive Council (NEC) sought legal advice on this matter and were instructed to not automatically put Corbyn on the ballot unless instructed to do so by the PLP. Corbyn’s team also sought legal advice and received a different interpretation. The courts won’t intervene in such a matter — most likely it will be up to the NEC to decide the matter and they will follow the legal advice they were given.
Labour’s poor rules governing leadership challenges offer a stark contrast to the very clear rules which govern the UK Conservative Party’s leadership selection process. They have clear rules on how to trigger a confidence vote in a sitting leader, what happens if the leader loses such a vote (hint: he or she cannot run again — they are off the ballot and there will be a new leader), how the vote will be conducted, etc. Tory party members do get to vote, but only after the parliamentary party (the caucus) has narrowed the list of candidates down to two. Thus the Tory leader is very much accountable to his or her caucus.
All of this should serve as a warning to Canadians. Our political parties have even looser rules than Labour’s, with no caucus control over who can be a candidate or how to get rid of a leader the caucus can no longer support. Thus our parties are far more vulnerable to being hijacked by a leader backed by external groups with interests that diverge from those of caucus. Frankly, it is rather surprising that something like what has befallen Labour hasn’t happened here. But just because it hasn’t happened yet, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t or won’t. What is happening to the Labour Party should be ringing alarm bells over here. How we choose party leaders in this country is problematic; we’re just very lucky none of our parties has had to go through the trauma now facing Labour.