What Truss means

Every now and then, you write something whose significance only becomes apparent later. So it was last month, when I wrote about the British Conservative Party’s membership ballot for the leadership:

Representative government as we know it evolved from a delicate balance between monarch, parliament and electorate; now an additional player has been given a hand, one whose qualifications for the role are less than obvious.

I did not expect the problem to show itself quite so quickly – indeed, my very next line was “[Liz] Truss seems unlikely to have major conflicts with her parliamentary colleagues.” But instead, just weeks later, Truss’s short and unhappy tenure has come to an end. The party membership had chosen a leader whose position among MPs turned out to be unsustainable.

The wheels started to fall off a week ago, when Truss sacked her chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, and appointed Jeremy Hunt in his place, announcing at the same time the reversal of one of her centrepiece policies, a cut in company tax. Hunt went on to dump most of the rest of the program as well, promising a return to the principles of sound finance that most Conservative MPs – whatever their differences on other issues – claim allegiance to.

This is not what the grassroots members voted for. If they had wanted sound finance, they could have had Rishi Sunak. They chose Truss because they thought the culture war was more important, and she understood, as I put it, “that the members don’t want to have to worry about economics or about the various contradictions embedded in the party’s economic views.”

But unlike the case of a leader elected by their fellow MPs, the lines of accountability are tangled. The parliamentary party was able to secure Truss’s departure but it does not choose her replacement, and in situations like this it has no guarantee that a new leader will not be equally unsuitable. The Labour Party faced this problem in 2016 when its MPs forced a leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn, only for the members to re-elect him.

Corbyn, of course, was opposition leader rather than prime minister, making the constitutional problem less acute. And Labor’s rules were different; while candidates needed support from a minimum number of MPs, it was otherwise just a straight vote by the membership, with no prior screening by the MPs. I said at the time that I thought the “Tories have hit on a better way of doing this,” but it still wasn’t enough to prevent the Truss fiasco.

So now the party has changed the rules. Candidates to replace Truss will need the support of a hundred MPs, not twenty, meaning that there will be three of them at most. The MPs will then send the top two to a ballot of members, but they will vote first for which one they prefer. And the whole process will be telescoped: nominations close on Monday, with the members ballot (if required) to be hold online next week.

The net effect is that it will be difficult if not impossible for the members to choose someone that MPs find unacceptable. Although the clock has not been turned all the way back to the time when the members had no say, it has clearly taken a step back in that direction. The obvious hope is that the MPs will settle on a consensus candidate – Penny Mordaunt, who came third in the last contest, is probably the best placed – and avoid the need for a ballot at all.

But even if that works this time (and the odds aren’t particularly good, especially with Boris Johnson contemplating a comeback), the problem isn’t going to go away. Political parties – not just in Britain but in many other countries as well, including Australia – are not the mass organisations they once were; their membership has become unrepresentative of the broader voting population on which they depend.

Putting the choice of leaders in the hands of such a narrow group is asking for trouble. Yet taking power away from the members risks just further reducing the incentive for people to join, setting up a vicious circle. Truss may have gone, but the Tory Party will have to live with her legacy.

13 thoughts on “What Truss means

  1. The discombobulation would be funny if it were the result, as you note, of a fundamentally dangerous abdication of political powers and responsibilities. There should now be an election. Can’t see the grasping Tories doing the right thing there.

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  2. But why should parties have members at all? It is completely unnecessary except to ideologically state “we come from the people, someone else must be the elite”. Fighting over statistics, how navel gazey can they get.

    Party policy and candidature is kept representative because MPs and candidates want a job – which is a far better mechanism than leaving it to those who not only care a ridiculous amount but are willing to pay money and perhaps even attend regular meetings. The Conservatives have literally no reason to fear reverting to a structure that kept them strong for years – in fact, if they switched they would do better going forward because their policy would be more representative than if they try to keep members happy. Chasing members instead of voters has done massive damage to the UK twice through Brexit and the Truss mess and it might yet tear it up and bring back the heptarchy (or at least a tetrarchy).

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    1. Thanks Felix! I think party membership can potentially do a lot of good; it ties politicians in to the community, providing feedback in both directions as well as a base of people to work on elections and the like. But it’s created problems as the base has become narrower, and even with a broad base I’m not convinced that giving them a say in the leadership is a good idea. Perhaps we need to look at alternative ways of doing things – although the US experience with (effectively) member-free parties is not encouraging.

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      1. …it ties politicians in to the community, providing feedback in both directions as well as a base of people to work on elections and the like…

        It could be argued that if politicians were not provided with a pre-existing organisational base, they would have to do more work to recruit people to work on their election campaigns and that this would be a more effective way of tying them in to the community and providing them with feedback.

        That’s a purely theoretical argument and the important question is how the two different options would shake out (ceteris paribus) in practice: I have no idea what the answer is. It’s not clear-cut.

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  3. We’ve been lucky so far. We’ve only had one leadership ballot, in 2013, when Shorten defeated Albanese thanks to the weighted votes of Caucus members vis a vis the members. I thought both were good candidates. Luckily we don’t have a Corbynite left to lead us to disaster. But we have the same structural problem as British Labour: a declining and ageing branch membership, who are actually less representative of the views of Labor voters than are Caucus members.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In the nineteenth century there were, in some countries at least, political parties which operated without a membership structure of the kind we’re used to, as Felix describes.

    If we’re discussing a party that exists now with members, like the Conservative Party, or other significant parties in the UK, Australia, and other countries, then obviously the existing membership would object strongly to having their party taken away from them–it would be practically impossible to achieve. That doesn’t prove that the members are actually of value to the party. Of course, from the point of view of existing members, the party is something that belongs to them, and it can seem reasonable to say that it’s the party which should be of value to the members, not the other way around. However, if you think of the party as an organisation which is trying to achieve political goals which its members and supporters think are good goals, it’s not clear how the membership structure actually contributes to achieving those goals. Taking the Conservative Party, again, as the example, somebody who’s joined the Conservative Party with the idea of getting something out of it for themself has an obvious objection to reduction in the role of the membership, but somebody who’s joined the Conservative Party with the idea that Conservative government (whatever they mean by ‘Conservative’) will be good for Britain might well ask ‘How does my being a member contribute to that goal, of Conservative government for Britain? I could vote for the party, donate money to the party, assist with the party’s campaigns, all without any membership structure.’

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  5. … I think we’re a long way from trying the experiment of abolishing political parties as we know them.

    Indeed. We’re not going back to a nineteenth-century political system, and on balance that’s a very good thing. One of the things that is possible, if things go badly, is that we could end up with a system that combines some of the worst features of the nineteenth century with some of the worst features of the twentieth and early twenty-first, but even then one of the nineteenth-century features that is not going to come back is parliamentary parties run entirely by the parliamentarians and with no formal extra-parliamentary organisation.

    So for practicial purposes the important point is that if we want the advantages of extra-parliamentary parties, we’ll get little of them with shrivelled party memberships and more with large broadly based ones.

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