The last few months have provided fresh case studies about political parties in the parliamentary system that change leaders while governing.
Most leaders come to power whilst their party is in opposition. Lose an election and the pressure mounts for change. Why leave when you’re governing?
But sometimes, heads of government are forced out when their re-election prospects look bleak and/or they have lost the trust and confidence of the grassroots of their party.
This was the case recently in the United Kingdom and in the Province of Alberta.
And sometimes leaders leave for health reasons – as is the case in the Province of British Columbia.
In all of these cases, the selection of the new leader, and, therefore, new head of government, is in the hands of the members of the respective political parties – a small percentage of the overall population. The general public just sits back and watches while a new prime minister or premier emerges – someone you may have never expected to be leading when you voted in the previous general election.
It’s actually more inclusive than before
Back in the ‘old days’, leadership election was the purview of party caucuses. Win the support of your colleagues and you become leader.
Then, in Canada, parties moved toward delegated conventions. Each riding would elect delegates from among its members. Those delegates would congregate in a central place to hear speeches and vote. The conventions would often take multiple ballots where delegates voted each time, after the bottom candidate was knocked out and others chose to pack it in. Many conventions were exciting from a participant and viewer standpoint. Delegated convention, on a national scale, could include anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 voters.
As exciting as they may have been, many clamoured for change. The delegated conventions were backroom affairs where party insiders controlled the process. Members back home watched on TV while the 8 or 12 delegates from their riding decided on leadership election at the exciting convention. Mind you, those delegates were probably elected with a mandate to support a particular candidate, but the folks back home were on the couch while the delegates were wined and dined and had the influence on the convention floor.
The calls for “one member – one vote” began in the 1990s in Canada and most parties have a form of that for leadership election today. In Canada, there are variations between weighted and unweighted. Weighted means each riding is basically equally (as is the case in delegated conventions). Regardless of whether you have 1,000 members or 100 members, you still have the same clout. In unweighted, it’s one big bucket of votes.
As a result of one member-one vote, more people than ever have a direct vote in leadership elections in the parliamentary system. In the UK Conservative leadership election, 141,725 voted in the race that elected Liz Truss. In Alberta, 84,593 UCP members voted in the leadership elections that produced Danielle Smith. In the federal Conservative leadership in 2022, over 430,000 members voted – a Canadian record.
However, in spite of this huge increase in participation in internal leadership selection, it is still a far cry from the mandate one receives in a general election. In the previous general election, the UK Conservatives received almost 14 million votes – about 100X that voted in the 2022 leadership process. The Alberta UCP received over 1 million votes in the previous election, but less than 9% of that total participated in their leadership process.
And BC? In 2020, John Horgan’s NDP received almost 900,000 votes, but at the time Horgan announced his plans to retire earlier this summer, it has been publicly reported that the party’s membership base had shrunk to as low as 11,000, representing just over 1% of the voters that elected them.
The pitfalls of one member – one vote
One of the reasons or theories in support of one member – one vote is that it more closely mirrors a general election than delegated conventions or caucus selection. Include more people and you are more likely to end up with a leader who has broader appeal, so the theory went.
In my own experience, that was probably the case in 2011 when Christy Clark was elected leader of the BC Liberal Party. She had broader public appeal than other contenders, but was not as strong among party insiders and certainly would not have won a vote held just in caucus.
Plus, weird things can happen at delegated convention where a dark horse ‘comes up the middle’. Unexpected leaders like Joe Clark (PC 1976), Bob Skelly (BC NDP 1984), and Stephane Dion (LPC 2006) became leader in large part because they were less objectionable and/or over-performed at the convention, but ultimately were not very successful in rallying their party or resonating with the public.
While one member-one vote brings out the party’s membership base, that is no guarantee of mirroring the party’s voter base – or the voters that the party needs to win the next election. The membership base can be more extreme, hard line, or issue obsessed than regular voters.
In Alberta, the appetite for change was already strong among grassroots members – 48% of whom voted to replace Premier Jason Kenney in May 2022. This reflected Kenney’s lack of popularity in the polls. When it came time to replace him, party members opted to go outside the caucus for a leader with views in stark opposition to Kenney. Danielle Smith is a known commodity in Alberta, and had served as Opposition Leader, yet some of her policies and positions are very different than those the UCP campaigned on in 2019. In terms of the ‘red meat’ (e.g., Sovereignty Act, appeals to the unvaccinated) she threw out to UCP members in order to win, will that be appetizing to the broader UCP voter base and swing voters?
In the UK, Liz Truss emerged as Conservative leader once members got their say. In their process, the caucus narrows down the choices to two then the members decide. Truss was third choice on the first caucus ballot but made the top two by the 5th ballot. She won the membership vote handily demonstrating how she resonated more with party grassroots than Westminster colleagues. She set forth on implementing her promises and caused a firestorm when markets reacted badly and stability was threatened. Her poll numbers crashed. After 37 days, she has already sacked her finance minister while a daily newspaper has a live feedcomparing her political lifespan to a head of lettuce. The UK Conservative members clearly backed her policies but public pressure has forced her to back down. Are UK Conservative members that far off the political mainstream?
In BC, there is a different issue. The NDP has not yet elected its successor, but it is facing a math problem. The membership base was very low when the leadership process started. While the UK Conservatives freeze their membership list to prevent new members from joining when a leadership race is called, Canadian political parties tend to have a period of time for membership sign-ups to spark renewal and generate excitement and fundraising. Such is the case with the BC NDP which allowed a period of about 8-10 weeks for sign-ups. Leading contender David Eby managed to sew up the vast majority of caucus, earning 48 endorsements of the 57-member caucus. It seemed like a done deal. However, MLAs only get one vote, just like anyone else who joins the party. With potential MLA contenders declining to run, Eby appeared to have a clear path to acclamation. Then along came a challenger.
Anjali Appadurai is writing the textbook case of a challenger who has no elected experience, no support from caucus, scant support from party insiders, but is able to fully leverage the rules to her advantage. A weak membership base made the party ripe for the picking. The BC Liberal opposition in BC recently chose a leader with over 30,000 members voting. Appadurai would have sized up the NDP situation and concluded that 5,000 to 10,000 new members would give her a chance to win. And as an experienced organizer, with strong links to environmental groups, she knew where to find them.
That’s fair cricket, as far as I’m concerned. The rules allow for new members. Leaving aside the political side show of ‘Green Party hostile takeover’ (a silly premise) and allegations of paid-for members, this situation was allowed to happen through complacency. David Eby, should he prevail as leader, will have done so with probably the weakest membership sign-up in a Canadian one member-one vote election, ever. By all accounts, he brought in little, relying on the existing small membership base, where he apparently has a strong following, and caucus support.
Albeit a former NDP federal candidate, Appadurai is a true outsider who opposes many of the policies of the government she wants to lead. Her policies would be a major change of course. And this could happen because she signed up maybe 5,000 to 10,000 members and had some support from the existing small base of members? An Appadurai government would be nothing short of a coup in Canada’s third-largest province, a political coup obviously, but one that the general public never could have anticipated. To compare to Alberta, Appadurai’s policies would be more starkly different than her predecessor and she is much less-known than Danielle Smith, not to mention not having any elected experience. It would be unfair to voters, who voted for John Horgan and his policies, to end up with the political whiplash offered by an Appadurai government. Frankly, it’s ridiculous that it even got this far.
The True Election
At the end of the day, there is actually only one real leadership election. The Crown decides.
By convention, the King or, in Canada, the Governor-General or Lieutenant-Governor, accepts the governing party’s choice of leader. However, that is based on a demonstration by the incoming leader that he or she can command confidence.
In the case of Liz Truss and Danielle Smith, they have passed that test. While espousing policies that may be off the mainstream for voters and even members in their own party, they are still, for now, seen to be able to command a majority in parliament. When Christy Clark was elected leader of the BC Liberal Party in 2011, she only had one MLA endorse her. But her history as a cabinet minister, deep ties in the party, and 1:1 diplomacy with the caucus assured her of confidence when she arrived at Government House. This is now the question for the BC NDP.
Sure, they may bounce Appadurai from the race on some grounds. The cut-to-the chase reality, however, is that she surely does not have any chance of commanding confidence in the Legislature. It is hard to believe that 44 of the 57 NDP MLAs would turn the keys over to her given her policy statements and lack of experience. In that case, she wouldn’t make it to Government House. She would be a leader of a political party, not the leader of its parliamentary wing. They are two distinct roles and one does not guarantee the other. This is obviously a very unwelcome scenario for the NDP. It’s one thing to entertain a challenger that represents a point of view within the party who is running to make a point; but it’s quite another when they could govern!
Thus, the question is: would the NDP MLAs support her as head of their government? This is the question all government caucuses should be asked before a leadership candidate even gets on the ballot.
How best to change leaders of governments on the fly?
All leadership processes have flaws, but electing a leader while governing is especially perilous.
One member – one vote systems need to take the parliamentary caucus into account to some extent, as they do in the UK. While that is no guarantee of smooth political passage, it does provide for more legitimacy.
I sympathize with the reforming impulse. Not many will say political insiders should have more power. Leadership change, especially after a long reign, can help reset a party’s direction in a way that is positive and sometimes it takes the membership to make that happen.
There is a natural tension that should exist between those guiding the political system, the membership base, and the public at large. First of all, the incoming leader needs to have been seen to have gone through a rigorous test. In fairness to voters, the incoming leaders should also have reasonably consistent views with those put forward by that party in the previous general election. If there is to be a major course change, the new leader should go quickly to the polls to earn a new mandate.
Parties can set membership cut-off dates at the time a vacancy opens to prevent takeovers. That deprives them of new energy, but that is a mechanism to control. In a perfect world, political parties would have ongoing vibrant memberships that attend non-leadership conventions, debate policies at riding level, strengthen the party system, while being more resilient in terms of ‘instant members’ and takeovers. There is a clear trend in Canada that has seen the diminishment of member involvement outside of leadership processes. Members even have less say in candidate selection than they used to, yielding their power to the leader and party officials. Stronger grassroots would be a much-needed counter balance to the centralization of power in political parties, but to suggest that may happen in the near-term is wishful thinking.
Many political observers, including media, say parties should go back to delegated conventions. There’s a fair amount of nostalgia for them given some of the exciting outcomes in the past. Some great leaders emerged from that process, but great leaders have also emerged from one member-one vote. Delegated conventions are less transparent and heavily brokered. Be careful what you wish for.
Wherever, and whenever, there is a leadership change resulting in a new prime minister or premier, it’s an opportunity to influence. Special interest groups often make full use of the process. But individual citizens can join a party and vote, if there’s still time to join. As the numbers demonstrated above, one’s influence in a party membership price is sometimes 100X the impact of one’s vote in a general election. For $5 or $10, it’s a pretty good deal.
And given the fact that a new leader will presumably govern (assuming confidence), it’s time to put these processes under more rigorous oversight by independent bodies.
The only other piece of advice I have is that when a new prime minister or premier is elected in a general election, try to assess whether their political lifespan is longer than a head of lettuce. You may end up with someone in charge of government that you didn’t expect and not have much to say about it.