Friday, 21 June 2019

Selectorate Theory

Robert Saunders has a bee in his bonnet about the Conservative party leadership contest: "On taxation, public spending and, above all, on Brexit, the whole programme of government is being rewritten to suit the preferences of 160,000 anonymous party members. Not since the days of the rotten boroughs, before the Reform Act of 1832, have a few thousand people held such extraordinary, undemocratic power". After his recent essay on the Tory party's intellectual decline, he has turned his attention to its institutional corruption. But this is not a critique he limits to the Conservatives. For Saunders, the issue is a wider structural flaw in which representative democracy is put at risk by parties that allow the membership to determine policy and personnel: what he describes as the "pay-for-access democracies of the Big Two". The issue then is about Labour as much as the Tories and, if you were a cynic, you might be inclined to believe that he is in part using the latter as a proxy for the former. That his article appears in the New Statesman doesn't diminish the suspicion.

The obvious omission in the evidence that Saunders presents for the problematic nature of British political parties is that of the Liberal Democrats, who are arguably the most activist of the lot in their commitment to conference-mandated policy and membership elections. Saunders can choose to ignore the party, despite the current contest between Ed Davey and Jo Swinson, because it is unlikely to be in power, though you could reasonably argue that a leadership election during the coalition years might have had a significant impact on government policy. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that he is making assumptions about the type of person who is a member of the "Big Two", and in particular that the Tories have become more extreme in recent years. Just as "mass entryism" has always been a myth, so we should be sceptical of the idea that the attitudes of party members are volatile. One of Nick Clegg's achievements was to change the perception of his party members from sandal-wearing obsessives to be-suited sensibles, but the personnel and their beliefs didn't actually change that much.

Saunders also ignores the non-English parties, such as the SNP and DUP, but this seems to be part of a wider disregard for the international dimension. Despite the neoliberal encouragement of a homogeneous culture of professional politicians and managerialist parties, there remains a wide variety of organisational types across the globe, reflecting the social role of parties and the constraints of local political systems. This ranges from the Chinese Communist Party, where membership is often a career necessity but actual influence on policy is negligible, to US open primaries, where anyone can vote to select party representatives. On this spectrum the British party system is pretty much middle-of-the-road. What is eccentric is the British parliament, which in some ways still operates as if parties had yet to be invented. Saunders' focus is on the tension between British political parties and the parliamentary system, and he is clearly more enamoured of the latter than the former, hence his belief that MPs alone should select party leaders when such an appointment leads to a new Prime Minister.

As Saunders doesn't wish to present Conservative party members as frothing loons, and so reduce his reasoned case to plain bigotry, he employs a critique of virtue: that privilege bought by money is illegitimate. But the idea that party subscriptions constitute "buying influence" is bizarre. It's a small amount of money and it secures you a correspondingly small say. There can't be many party members who view their subs in purely transactional terms, and most activists are motivated more by altruism than a lust for power, even if it can come across as arrogant "do-goodery". The language of influence-buying is odd when you consider that Saunders does not mention the role of rich donors, though their growing influence over both the main parties is perhaps the single greatest institutional change seen over the last quarter of a century, as trade unions have been marginalised and the Conservative party membership has shrunk. The key to Boris Johnson's likely victory in the Tory leadership contest is his popularity with the "inner party" of donors and careerists as much as his popularity with the base.

The Labour party's membership has always been a site of ideological contest, not just in the struggle for influence and office within constituency parties and on the National Executive Committee, but in the valorisation of "ordinary party members" as both a collective conscience (the preferred image of the left) and a restraining influence (the preferred image of the right). This embodiment of Labour values in the membership is what you would expect from a democratic and egalitarian party (the Tories prefer embodiment in the party elite), but it means that ideological battles are framed as the party hierarchy "leaving" the membership (the right's preferred trope) or "betraying" it (the left's preferred trope), rather than as a division within the membership itself. It also leads to a desire to circumscribe acceptable beliefs and behaviours among the members, producing a disciplinary system where the demand for purges and auto-da-fés, in order to preserve the integrity of the "true" membership, is in obvious tension with natural justice.

In contrast, the Conservative party's membership has always been relatively opaque, contributing to the anthropological approach of much contemporary political science. Where Labour's herbivorous membership is routinely misrepresented - apparently rightwing under New Labour and leftwing today - the carnivorous nature of the Tory membership has generally been politely ignored, as if Enoch Powell always spoke to empty rooms and Norman Tebbit was an embarrassment. This opacity is reflected in a disciplinary system that appears to have been modelled on a golf club, where institutional solidarity means that you have to go a long way to sufficiently blot your copybook to face expulsion. It is only in the last few years, largely as a result of social media exposure, that individual members have come under sustained scrutiny. The reluctance of the party to expel Islamophobes and bigots is less a reflection of a secret sympathy and more a distaste for disciplinary action against fellow "club members".

Saunders, in my opinion, fails to make his case. Having the Prime Minister chosen by a party's members is no less democratic than restricting the choice to MPs, given that the same membership selected those MPs as candidates for Parliament and could likewise deselect them. Pleading that MPs must be able to ignore their party membership because of a responsibility to the full electorate or their own Burkean judgement is self-serving guff. The idea that a Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of his or her party's MPs is no different to the argument that a party leader should do so, and I suspect this is really Saunders' point (that Corbyn is nowhere named in the article is the tell). But it is disingenuous to suggest that the Tory leadership contest, in which Boris Johnson has already received the votes of a majority of his party's MPs (160 out of 317), and in which the membership vote is likely to simply endorse this selection, is an affront to democracy. The greater challenges to fair representation lie within Parliament, not within the parties.


  1. I've watched the BBC interviews with Johnson and Hunt. My conclusion is Laura Kuenssberg would make a very good conservative Prime Minister.

  2. I've watched the head to head TV debates and I've changed my mind. I now see Julie Etchingham as the ideal conservative Prime Minister.

  3. I've just finished watching the Andrew Neil interviews with Johnson and Hunt on the BBC. The only firm impression I've got is that Andrew Neil would make a truly dreadful conservative Prime Minister.

    The only hope now is that Julie Etchingham will flesh out some convincing, detailed policy positions in the next two weeks and rescue the process.