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Mile End Institute

Party members choosing Prime Ministers - a constitutional concern?

With just under a month to go until the Conservative Party announces its new leader, and Britain's next Prime Minister, David Klempererer considers how the Party chooses its leaders and the extent to which this process should be independently regulated. 

The Conservative Party's logo of a Blue Oak Tree against a white background
Estimated Reading Time: 4-6 minutes.

On 5 September, the Conservative Party will announce its new leader, and Britain's next Prime Minister. After five rounds of voting, Conservative MPs have narrowed the choice to two candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. But the final decision between the two will be made by the Conservative Party membership in a ballot held over the summer from 22 July to 2 September. 

This will be only the second time in British history that a ballot of party members has been used to select a new PM - the previous occasion being in 2019, when Boris Johnson was chosen by Conservative members to replace Theresa May. Although Labour has allowed its members to vote in leadership elections since the 1980s, and the Conservatives since the 1990s, neither in 2007 (when Tony Blair was succeeded by Gordon Brown) nor in 2016 (when David Cameron was succeeded by Theresa May) was a member ballot actually used. Their use by a governing party to choose a Prime Minister is thus a relatively novel feature of British Politics. 

This has not been an uncontroversial development: in 2019, historian Robert Saunders described the Conservative Party's use of a member ballot as a 'constitutional revolution' that marked 'a fundamental shift in the location of power' within our political system - from accountable elected representatives to unaccountable party activists. For Saunders, not only is such a transfer of authority profoundly undemocratic, but it also risks gridlock by putting in office Prime Ministers who do not command sufficient parliamentary support. More recently, Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox made a series of similar criticisms of the present contest, arguing that party members are neither sufficiently numerous nor sufficiently representative of the electorate at large, for a vote by them to command any meaningful democratic legitimacy. An alternative fear is that such votes could in fact be attributed too much democratic significance, allowing Prime Ministers to claim a personal mandate independent of their parliamentary backing - as Boris Johnson has indeed regularly done over the past few months

Moreover, in addition to these deeper questions and parliamentary functioning, there have been numerous immediate concerns as to the integrity of the member vote process being used by the Conservative Party in the current instance. 

Firstly, the nature of the Conservative Party's internal workings mean that the process for members to select a new leader is neither transparent nor even predetermined in advance. According to the Party's constitution, 'the rules for the conduct of the ballot or ballots of Party Members and Scottish Party Members shall be agreed by the Board and the Executive Committee of the 1922 Committee', meaning these bodies have wide discretion to shape the contest as they see fit, with no obligation to make their decisions public. Indeed in 2019, it was only via a leak of 1922 Committee documents that the rules and regulations for the leadership election were widely revealed. Likewise, in this contest, although Conservative Party emails to their members have revealed that the election is being administered by a 'ballot company', they have not publicly specified what company this is. 

Secondly, questions have been raised over the role that will be played by money and by political donors over the course of the campaign. At the start of the contest, 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady announced that the spending limit for this election would be £300,000 per candidate, excluding travel expenses - more than double the limit that was adopted in 2019, and three times the limit for a parliamentary by-election.

Moreover, the Conservative Party is not requiring candidates to make any public disclosure of their sources of financial support. Instead, party members and the public will be reliant for such information on the House of Commons register of interests, to which all MPs must declare any donations they receive of over £1500, including for leadership election campaigns. However, as the Commons is in summer recess, the register is unlikely to be updated until the end of August - by which time the campaign will largely be over, and many votes will already have been cast. Sunak and Truss will thus, by and large, be able to avoid any real scrutiny of their donors. 

Thirdly, there is a great deal of opacity as to exactly who can and will be participating in the vote. Conservative membership data is not officially published, meaning we do not know the exact size of the electorate. Moreover, there appears to be little vetting of membership sign-ups. Indeed, some may not even be UK residents or UK citizens: the 'Conservatives Abroad' membership scheme allows 'anyone living anywhere in the world' to join the Conservative Party with full membership rights in return for a donation of just £25 a year (or £5 in the case of those under-26). Indeed, some commentators have experimented to test this system to its limits, finding that it was even possible to successfully sign-up from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine with a fake name and address. However, there is a rule in place to impose limits of entryism, and to prevent a mass influx of new members: the party constitution imposes a three-month membership requirement on voting in leadership member ballots, meaning only those who had already joined by the party by 3 June will be eligible to vote. 

Nonetheless, the Telegraph also revealed that the Conservative Party's original voting process was insecure. This is because in addition to mailing out a ballot to every member, the party has for this contest also established provisions for electronic voting. Although members were encouraged to only vote by one method, it had originally been decided that those who did vote twice would face no sanction, but that only the second vote received would be recorded. This would effectively have allowed members to change their vote, by casting a second vote later by the alternative method.

However, the Party has now reportedly been advised by National Cyber Security Centre that this process left open the possibility for hackers to use the online aspect of the system to change thousands of members votes at the very end of the contest. The final result could thus have been the product of manipulation - whether by a hostile state, or any other nefarious actor. As a result, the Party Board and the Executive Committee of the 1922 Committee have made a late-stage alteration to its voting process: the ballot company will now provide members with a unique voting code that will be de-activated once used, thus removing the option for members to change their vote. Moreover, attempting to vote twice will now be grounds for removal of party membership. 

It is worth noting, of course, that the Labour Party has also had issues with defining its internal electorate for leadership elections: the joining cut-off date in order to vote is always a matter of contentious debate on the National Executive Committee that governs such contests, and in the 2015 leadership election at least one person successfully signed up their cat to vote. Moreover, the recently-published Forde Report into Labour's internal culture has revealed the extent of controversies - including amongst party staff themselves - over the appropriate vetting for new supporters who signed up to vote in that election. In addition, like the Conservative party, the Labour Party uses both private election services companies and online voting for their member ballots. Concerns over the conduct of internal elections, then, do not merely apply to the Conservative Party.

Internal party democracy then, even when used to select a Prime Minister, functions very differently from public elections: it is not directly regulated by the Electoral Commission, its administration (most often by private companies) is opaque, and it frequently includes less-secure online voting. It therefore presents distinct problems: spending limits are (relatively) looser, voting eligibility requirements are more variable, rules are both less transparent and more flexible, votes are less secure, and fraud is easier. Perhaps most crucially, there are no clear penalties for malpractice - unlike in public elections, for which the Electoral Commission has a clear enforcement policy

In many ways this is natural: how parties select their leaders is ultimately a matter for the parties themselves. In a pluralist democratic system, political groupings should largely be able to organise their internal structures as they see fit. And yet, for better or for worse, British politics today is organised around and conducted through these parties; the workings of our wider constitution thus depend on their behaviour. As the latest National Cyber Security Centre involvement in the Conservative Party leadership election shows, these processes neither can or should expect to remain permanently outside of public scrutiny or regulation. 

David Klemperer is a PhD candidate in History at Queen Mary University of London, and a former Research Fellow at the Constitution Society. 

N.B. This blog was first written for the Constitution Society and may be read here. The Constitution Society is an independent educational trust which exists to promote informed debate on constitutional changes. Follow them on Twitter



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