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Wednesday 22 May 2019

tortoise take • opinion

Rule by the few

British democracy is being subverted by party members who wield immense power

By Matthew d’Ancona, Xavier Greenwood and Chris Newell

All democracy is good, isn’t it? It depends, of course, upon what you mean by “democracy”. Universal suffrage – the principle that all adults over 18 have the right to vote in elections – is an unarguable good. So are the values of equal citizenship enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010.

Much less defensible are the extravagant claims that are increasingly made for “party democracy”: the principle that decision-making in political parties – at national and local level – should be carried out by their members. The power of deselection looms over MPs as never before. Prospective party leaders aim to please their members, instead of confronting them with the hard realities of governing on behalf of a whole nation.

Naturally, it is hard for any such political organisation to resist the demands of its members for greater powers. But the consequence of this process for public life as a whole has been distortive to the point of corruption: it has handed immense power over the complexion of Parliament and the identity of the Prime Minister to proportionately tiny numbers of people.

Take the forthcoming Conservative leadership contest. After Tory MPs have whittled down the list of contenders to two, the party membership will choose the next leader – who will succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister.

Compare the size of this party selectorate to the voting population as a whole – the people with the power versus the people who will be affected by their decision:

Parties present themselves as social and political forces that represent value-driven continuity in a turbulent world. But their scale is much more volatile – and profoundly sensitive to changes in the price of registration, to contentious moments such as the Iraq War, and to the identity of the leader – than they like to admit. They are amorphous tribes, endlessly mutating, not formal institutions like the legislature, the courts and the great departments of state.

Labour has grown and changed fundamentally: in 2015, the party offered a special joining rate of £3 for registered supporters who were not full members but entitled to vote in the leadership contest won handsomely by Jeremy Corbyn. Even aside from this, Labour’s regular membership almost tripled in size between 2014 and 2017.

In contrast, the Tory Party is in steady decline, struggling to attract young recruits: it is a striking actuarial fact that, in 2017, the Conservatives raised more money in bequests than from the fees of living members. The flipside of this, in the populist era, is the capacity of a new movement such as the Brexit Party to surge into existence almost overnight.

Changing membership of UK political parties (in thousands)

Waxing or waning, the main parties still account for a tiny percentage of the population. Routinely presented in party propaganda as noble pavement-pounding activists, members are also a self-defining oligarchy that exercises disproportionate power over the identity of those who sit in Parliament, the policies that they pursue and the selection of Prime Minister.

Worse, and in keeping with the political polarisation that has been compounded by the echo chambers of social media, party members are increasingly unrepresentative of the views of the general electorate:

As a consequence, sitting MPs – though elected by their constituents as a whole – are constantly vulnerable to deselection by a tiny number of activists. In March, Dominic Grieve, the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield and a former Attorney General, lost a confidence vote held by his local association by 182 to 131, due to his opposition to Brexit. More than 200 members had joined the local Tory party in the months before the vote, many of them defectors from UKIP. Grieve is now on probation, on the naughty step of local party democracy even as he strives to act patriotically on the national stage.

The genie of “party democracy” will not be restored to the bottle: nor should it be, entirely. Nobody wants a return to the days when the Labour Party’s destiny was decided by the trade union “block vote”; and Tory leaders were chosen by the so-called “magic circle” of Conservative patriarchs.

But the time has come for an honest discussion about the distortive impact of a political phenomenon that, in fact, concentrates power in the hands of the (relatively) few at the expense of the many.

There are specific steps that can be taken:

  • More open primaries to involve the general public in candidate selection
  • Better safeguards against mass “entryism” by ideologues seeking only disruption and destabilisation
  • The national offices of the main parties being less cautious in using the powers they have to thwart vexatious deselection
  • Higher thresholds before a vote can be called by local parties on the fate of an incumbent MP.

But first – the greatest ask of all in contemporary political culture – there must be honest recognition of an inconvenient truth: that, on present trends, we are lurching towards a dictatorship of the selectorate.

For & Against


“Despite the narrative peddled by the establishment media, mandatory reselection isn’t about settling old scores. It’s about opening up politics, increasing participation, and expanding Labour’s membership by giving people the power to influence how their representatives vote on issues affecting their lives.”

Matt Zarb-Cousin, former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, Jacobin, September 2018

“We therefore with great reluctance ask that she considers her position and resigns, to allow the Conservative Party to choose another leader, and the country to move forward and negotiate our exit from the EU.”

Motion calling for Theresa May’s resignation, to be put to the vote on 15 June, at a special emergency meeting of Conservative activists

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1774

“This is ridiculous. I may disagree with him on Brexit matters, but Dominic Grieve is a quality MP and a genuine Conservative. The Conservative Party is a broad church not a narrow, intolerant sect. The moment it becomes the latter it ceases to command the support of the public.”

Iain Dale, political commentator, tweeting about vote of no confidence in Grieve, March 2019
Further reading

The definitive work on the subject promises to be Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti’s Footsoldiers: Party Membership in the Twenty-First Century (forthcoming); also useful is Alistair Clark’s Political Parties in the UK (2018).

On the broader issues of party democracy: On Parties, Party Systems and Democracy: Selected Writings of Peter Mair (2014).

For international comparison: B. Scott Christmas’s Washington’s Nightmare: A Brief History of American Political Parties (2017) and Simon Hix and Christopher Lord’s Political Parties in the European Union (1997).

The most eloquent case for mandatory reselection of Labour MPs – and party democracy in general – is to be found in the Diaries of Tony Benn.