On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Leaders are made, not born

The leadership of political parties is vigorously contested in all democratic nations.

Party leadership processes are – or recently have been – underway in the United States, Britain and Canada, and may soon also be in Australia.

The major English-speaking democracies have evolved from the traditional simple approach of a parliamentary party room or caucus self-selecting one of its members as leader. In most nations some form of direct party member vote on national party leaders has been adopted.

The changes towards member-based leader selection raise important issues for the nature of parliamentary systems of government.

flag - Australia

Australian held national elections a fortnight ago.

In recent years Australia has provided three stark illustrations of the fact that in parliamentary systems the electorate does not directly choose Prime Ministers.

Instead, three times in the past three parliamentary terms internal leadership changes in both major Australian parties have resulted in changes of Prime Minister.

The selection process for Australia’s political party leadership positions remain relatively traditional and straightforward, and are based almost entirely on support in parliamentary party rooms.

In each of the currently governing Liberal and National parties, the parliamentary leader is chosen simply by the party rooms which consist of of sitting members and senators.

(Australia’s conservative coalition is actually an alliance of four parties, including the Liberal Party (which runs candidates in five of the six states and the Australian Capital Territory) and the National Party (which fields candidates in four states, although New South Wales and Victoria are the dominant sources of success), with the other two components being the ‘merged’ Liberal National Party of Queensland and the Country Liberal Party of the Northern Territory. Once elected, members and senators elected for the latter two state-based parties are eligible to sit in either the Liberal party room or the National party room, but not both, with the Queensland affiliations being broadly determined by historical links that relate to the political position prior to the merger of the two parties in 2008.)

At the recent national elections incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party Malcolm Turnbull held on to office but with a sharply reduced parliamentary majority.

Turnbull’s party is internally divided over policy and leadership, and given recent Australian history speculation remains about the Prime Minister’s ability to keep hold of his party leadership for the parliament’s coming three-year term.

Opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten was the only nominee at his party’s initial post-election party room meeting in recent days, but it remain unclear whether party rules throwing open the leadership after an election loss have been fully addressed.

Like the Liberal and National parties, the Australian Labor Party traditionally selected its leaders by a simple vote of the parliamentary party room. But reforms adopted by that party room in 2013 now provide for a weighted process where a vote of the mass membership and a vote of the party room is combined in 50/50 proportions.

The only occasion on which the new process has been used (in 2013) saw only two nominations, but if three or more candidates stood in future contests the system would presumably involve some form of preferential voting.

gbIn the UK the selection of party leaders is much more heavily based on votes of the wider party membership.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties have seen their leaderships rocked by the fallout from the June 23 Brexit vote.

The Conservative Party has actually carried out its party leader selection process in the past week, following the resignation of former leader David Cameron.

The Conservative leader selection process begins in the party room before going to the mass membership. Once nominations are made – assuming there are three or more – the party room holds a series of elimination votes – technically known as an exhaustive ballot procedure – each on different days, with the hindmost candidate eliminated at each round, continuing until only two candidates remain.

Under the party’s process it is immaterial that one candidate secures the support of a majority of the party room at any of these votes – as in fact happened in the past week for leading candidate Therese May. The task of the party room is to reduce the number of candidates to two. Once that is done, the two leading candidates are referred to a mass ballot of the party’s members, which finally selects the leader.

The mass ballot of Conservative members did not occur on this occasion because one of the final two candidates then withdrew her nomination, leaving Therese May – clearly the favourite among the parliamentary members – as party leader and thus as UK Prime Minister.

Also currently a live issue is the process by which the British Labour Party selects its leader. A few days ago this process – adopted for the first time in 2015 – was triggered by a party room move against the sitting leader Jeremy Corbyn.

To be nominated for the Labour leadership, a candidate must be a sitting MP, and their candidacy must be supported by at least 20% of the total number of Labour members of the House of Commons, House of Lords and European Parliament.

The selection is then referred to a vote of mass memberships, with every party member and every member of party-affiliated organisations (that is, unions), as well as ‘supporters’ of the party who pay a small fee to take part, having an equal individual vote.

Labour’s leadership is currently in the throes of a very awkward problem, in which the party’s mass membership and its parliamentary party room appear to be dramatically at odds. Several days ago over 80% of the party room supported a motion of no confidence in Corbyn.

The background to the situation is that Corbyn won the 2015 leadership race with a very significant lead in the support of the party and affiliate members (59% out of four candidates), and he is thought still to enjoy majorities in both the party and affiliated union membership bases.

image - Jeremy Corbyn

British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn is in the bizarre position of being strongly supported by his party’s members, but opposed by 80% of the elected MPS inside his party room. Angela Eagle – seen here to Corbyn’s left – is one of his current challengers for the party leadership (image: BBC)

Corbyn would likely have struggled to find the 20% of elected politicians ordinarily required to become a nominee. However the party executive has voted to allow his name to be included on the coming ballot, recognizing his current leadership position as well as the political realities of the party membership’s view of the leadership dispute.

Should Corbyn be returned in the coming vote, however, the utter lack of confidence shown in him by his parliamentary team could still amount to a disaster for the party’s political credibility.

The UK Liberal Democrats – simple by comparison to the Conservatives and Labour – operate a fairly straightforward system of direct election of leaders by party members, with preferential voting.

caCanada is also undertaking a rejuvenation of its party leaderships following the sweeping victory of the Liberal Party in the national elections in October 2015.

As in the UK, the three main Canadian parties allow their broad party memberships to choose their party leaders.

The Canadian Liberal Party last chose a new leader – Justin Trudeau – in 2013. The election is preferential if three or more candidates nominate, although this was of little significance in 2013 as Trudeau won 80% of the first preference vote in his leadership contest.

The votes are also weighted, so that each of the 338 national electoral divisions (known as ridings in Canada) is allocated 100 points. The ballots are counted within each riding, and candidates win a share of the 100 points for each riding based on their first preference vote. If a candidate wins a majority of these points nation-wide, they win the leadership. Otherwise the least-placed candidate is eliminated, and every riding’s points are re-examined taking that elimination into account, and fresh totals are calculated. The process of eliminations proceeds until one candidate secures 50% of the national points. The system is therefore both preferential and also district-weighted, although it requires only a single ballot paper to be submitted.

The rules for selecting the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada are similar to those of the Liberal Party – party member-based preferential voting with each riding allocated 100 points – but the current selection process also displays a Canadian habit of taking time over the contest.

Despite former Conservative leader Stephen Harper resigning in late 2015, the party members will not select their new leader until May 2017. Since the rules require that the acting party leader may not be a candidate, interim leader Rona Ambrose will lead her party’s parliamentary team for 18 months without having the authority of being a potential future leader.

The New Democratic Party – Canada’s third political party (and among the strongest two in some provinces) is also going to take its time. Many mid-2015 polls had given the party great hope that Leader Stephen Mulcair was a strong chance to lead his party to government in October 2015. After failing in that quest Mulcair wished to remain as leader, but a party convention narrowly voted for his removal. He is ineligible to nominate for the leadership, but remains in office as acting leader.

Nominations for Mulcair’s replacement only opened last week, and will remain open for a whole calendar year until 3 July 2017. After that point voting will proceed among the party’s mass membership in a series of ballots – one per week – using preferential voting, with the least-placed candidate eliminated each week until one candidate secures 50% of the votes nationwide.

The NDP does not appear to use the riding-weighting system followed by the Liberals and Conservatives, which may reflect that NDP support varies by region somewhat more than the other two parties.

flag - United StatesIn the United States, the starker separation of executive and legislative power has led to two forms of party leadership selection: the 4-yearly presidential nominations and the ongoing congressional leadership roles.

In what now seems an almost old-fashioned manner, the Republican and Democratic parties each elect their congressional leaders by simple internal secret ballots of their party rooms (known as the Republican Party conference and the Democratic Party caucus). Separate positions are filed for each of the House and Representatives and the Senate, resulting in two congressional leaders for each party. Whichever party controls the House of Representatives also sees its leading figure elected as Speaker of the House, and this party then elects another member to be its Majority Leader in the House.

The selection of US presidential nominees is, of course, conducted by the drawn-out and spectacular process of competitive nominations by primary elections and caucuses that has unfolded in recent months.

The US political culture is heavily based on two-party dominance, and during the former era of internal party pre-selections this made much of the process of selecting legislators and executives highly undemocratic. During there 20th century a series of reforms adopted the extensive use of more open party nominee pre-selections for thousands of national, state and other elected offices through the use of competitive electoral processes. These ‘primaries’ are mainly conducted according to state legislation and are carried out by a mix of state officials and employees as well as party organisers.

The formal stages of the process – starting with registering of nominations – usually commence around January of each election year, with contests decided at various times starting in February and running as late as August. The parties hold formal conventions in around July, at which the national presidential nominees are formally selected by the thousands of delegates elected to those conventions.

US presidents are selected by two indirect processes. First, during the period February to June in each presidential election year, each of the parties select delegates to the party conventions, which will choose their presidential nominees. Then in November the public vote to elect delegates to an ‘electoral college’, which then chooses the president from among the party nominees. The latter stage is – despite certain mathematical inequalities – a workable approximation to a direct election, although in close elections the anomalies of the process can matter.

US party nominees for president are not quite party leaders in the sense used in nations with parliamentary systems of government. An elected US president is of course their party’s most powerful figure, but they do not control votes in Congress other than through persuasion. The rival candidate who fails to win the November elections has no ongoing office or position in the American political system, other than whatever personal stature within the party they may otherwise possess.


The systems described above obviously vary, mainly in the various combinations in which a party confers the task of selecting leaders on its elected members, its mass members, or even in some cases on the wider voting public.

The member/politician balance in these systems work in different ways to combine the legitimacy of a mass following with the immediate practical matter of a workable parliamentary team.

In the strange case of the current UK Labour Party leadership challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, the efficacy of a system which combine both elements will be placed under great strain.

Nominal leaders without agreed authority cannot very effectively wield political strength, and the present volatility of the British political scene may force Labour to rethink its leader selection method.

The deeper constitutional issue is the extent to which the option of party leader selection by a mass party membership is compatible with parliamentary government. In Corbyn’s case, either the Labour Party’s members or its working politicians seem likely to get a result they simply cannot accept.

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This entry was posted on July 19, 2016 by in Australia, Canada, Current issues, Party leadership, United Kingdom, United States.
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