The Conservative leadership contest: a question of democracy?


Sunak or Truss? This is the decision that Conservative Party members will be making when they receive their ballot papers this week. Their vote will be decisive, selecting not only the next Leader of the Conservative Party, but the next Prime Minister, sparking questions from across the political spectrum about just how democratic the process really is.

A key criticism levelled at the election process is that only 0.3% of the nation’s adult population can vote. With such a small electorate, the winner of any contest arguably has no mandate to run the nation. This is especially divisive when the membership of the Conservative Party is seemingly unrepresentative of the general population, and encourages candidates to pursue the policies that win their votes, rather than work best for the country.  The candidates would argue that their mandate was provided by the Conservative MPs, who were directly elected to represent their constituents, in earlier ballots. Adapting policies to suit your electorate and win votes is part and parcel of the political game, but it is useful to ask who exactly the candidates for Prime Minister are appeasing.

Whilst data on the membership is not officially published, a joint study from Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex shows that they are more likely to be older, more likely to be middle class, and more likely to be male than the general electorate. Membership rules also mean that you can be a member, and consequently vote in this election, without actually living in the UK or being a UK citizen. Clearly, the cohort of people voting for our next Prime Minister is not entirely representative of those who would be voting in a general election. 

Only 0.3% of the nation’s adult population can vote

National elections are also the subject of debate on democracy, with the ‘First Past the Post’ system widely accepted as flawed, and noticeably not being used in this leadership election. It is also important to note that we do not have a Presidential system of governance — we elect MPs, most often as members of a party, whose leader then becomes Prime Minister. Once we have elected MPs, how they then select their leader is their prerogative. That is not to say that the current process could be vastly improved. Former Conservative Minister Rory Stewart has suggested a return to the system used by the Conservative Party before the 1998 rule change, where MPs directly elected the leader and where candidates were, therefore, forced to address the “broad coalition” of MPs in their party. This would, however, remove the membership from the process, and consequently a key benefit of joining the Conservative Party. Whilst this would arguably be more democratic, it also risks reducing the election to a vote along established lines where candidates divide the party rather than uniting it in a common goal.

The current system creates division itself, with candidates allegedly having been pulled out of a Sky debate due to concerns about the damage being done to the image of the Conservative Party. As candidates invoke Thatcherite economic policies in a way reminiscent of Boris Johnson’s attempts at Churchillian rhetoric, it is also worth considering that Margaret Thatcher was elected leader only by MPs, and would perhaps not have been as successful against incumbent Ted Heath had the vote gone to the membership. Perhaps then, a vote amongst equals would be a better way to elect the first among equals.

Image: secretlondon123 via Wikimedia Commons

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