Leadership battles in Britain

Reverberations continue from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, with the Conservative Party now having a new leader. Home secretary Theresa May will take office tomorrow as the country’s 54th prime minister, once the formalities of David Cameron’s resignation are completed.

May was already heavily favored for the job, but she is taking over sooner than expected after her rival for the leadership, energy minister Andrea Leadsom, withdrew from the contest yesterday. Despite the heavy preference for a “leave” vote among the Conservative rank and file, the party will therefore again be led by a “remain” supporter – albeit one who has pledged to carry out the referendum decision.

Meanwhile, no such easy resolution seems in store for the opposition Labour Party. Leader Jeremy Corbyn, elected overwhelmingly last year by party members and supporters, is opposed by the large majority of the parliamentary party. Among other things, they blame him for the poor “remain” result in many traditional Labour areas. Now Angela Eagle, one of the shadow ministers who resigned in protest following the referendum, has launched a formal challenge to his leadership.

It should otherwise be a promising time for Corbyn, with the spotlight on the Conservative Party’s divisions and the report of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war highlighting the sins of his Blairite rivals. But while he has clearly retained much of the support that elected him last year, it’s hard to see how a party leader can function effectively with so little backing from his parliamentary colleagues.

The contrast between the two parties therefore offers an interesting study in how to elect party leaders. In both cases, candidates have to be nominated by MPs; in the Labour Party a minimum level of support from them is required, but from there the contest is entirely in the hands of the members. Regardless of the number of candidates (last year there were four), there’s just a postal ballot, with optional preferential voting, among all the members and registered supporters.

With the Conservatives, however, if there are more than two nominations (this year there were initially five) then there is a series of votes just among MPs to whittle them down to two. Only the final two then go out to a ballot of party members, who have to have been members for at least the previous three months.

It seems to me that the Tories have hit on a better way of doing this. Having candidates screened by the MPs first has several advantages. It makes it much less likely that you’ll get a leader with very little support in the parliamentary party; party members have a simpler choice to make, and they make it already knowing the relative strength of the candidates among MPs.

It also means that, as happened this time, a candidate can decide that even though they are in the top two, they just don’t have enough support to make a go of it and can therefore bow out and save the party a lot of time and expense.

That’s not so good, however, if you’re a Europhobic Conservative Party member and you were expecting a chance to express your view on the leadership. If there had only been two candidates to start with, then of course having one withdraw would always leave the other unopposed. But with three candidates previously being eliminated, it would arguably be fairer for one of them now to be reinstated (or at least given that option) as a competitor to May. But that’s apparently not how it works.

There’s also a technical dispute about the rules in the Labour Party, concerning whether Corbyn, as an incumbent under challenge, needs to win support from the threshold number of MPs (currently 51) before his name can go on the ballot. Since he only got 40 votes in the vote of confidence two weeks ago, there’s some thought that he might not meet that hurdle and Eagle might win the leadership unopposed.

You can read the details of the dispute at the BBC. The rules on the point are badly written; for what it’s worth, it seems to me that the threshold is intended to apply only to challengers, not to the incumbent, but it’s impossible to say what might happen if it should end up in court.

Clearly it would be more democratic if the members who elected Corbyn are given the final say on his leadership. But what Labour really needs is someone who can heal its internal divisions, and that looks as far away as ever.

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