Gaming a Tory leadership election

It was a lot easier when he stood.
It was a lot easier when he stood.
A Facebook discussion I was in the other day ended up talking about the mechanics of Tory leadership elections, and it prompted a few thoughts. Just to be clear, these are all about electoral strategy for candidates in that putative election, not about their policies or personalities except in as much as they might influence their strategy.

A leadership election is a two-stage process. In the first round, MPs nominate candidates and then a series of eliminative ballots are held. The candidate with the least votes in each ballot drops out until only two candidates remain. Those two then go to a ballot of the party membership which decides the victor. If only two candidates are nominated, the process jumps straight to the membership ballot, if only one candidate is nominated (as happened with Michael Howard in 2003) they’re elected unopposed. Another important point to note is that there’s no provision for candidates to enter the race after the initial close of nominations – despite media speculation, the rules don’t allow for a stalking horse election.

Even without stalking horses, there’s still plenty of scope for strategy within the initial stage of the process. Candidates are not only concerned about getting themselves into the membership ballot but also who they’ll face while they’re there. This can be seen in the final MP ballot of the 2001 election where several of Iain Duncan Smith’s supporters reportedly backed Ken Clarke in an effort to ensure that it was Clarke, and not Michael Portillo, who Duncan Smith would face in the membership ballot. (It was perhaps a foretaste of his abilities as a leader that the scheme came close to a horrendous backfire as enough of them switched to Clarke that he only beat Portillo by a single vote)

The interesting effect of this system is that while they can’t end up with someone supported by a small group of MPs become their leader, it is possible to become leader if you can get a third plus one of the Conservative MPs to support you. With current numbers, that’s 111 MPs. If you can rely on that many supporting you, there’s no way that you can be stopped from getting into the membership ballot. Every vote short of that target makes it easier for your opponents to co-ordinate their strategy and block you.

This presents us with an interesting situation if we have a candidate who only has limited popularity with the MPs, but is popular with the membership. Assuming that candidate can persuade around a third of the MPs to back them, the other challengers face three options: they can try and coordinate their voters to exclude the other candidate from the membership ballot; they can fight it out between them for the remaining two-thirds of the electorate and see who does best; or they can agree to rally behind one candidate. The latter option would be accepting that the candidate with membership support would be on the membership ballot, but would ensure that his rival is seen as the clear choice of the MPs in the hope members would react positively to a candidate with clear Parliamentary support.

To illustrate this, assume a contest has got down to the final three candidates: A, B and C. A and B both believe that C is more popular with the membership than they are, so would prefer them not to face the membership. Both A and B would also prefer the other to C given the chance, and think they would have the chance to beat them in the membership ballot. Their best course of action depends on how popular they think C is amongst the MPs. If they think C has the support of less than a hundred MPs, it makes sense for them to keep competing with each other as both are still likely to beat C and make it to the membership ballot. If C is more popular, but still short of 111 MPs, then there is an incentive for them to co-ordinate their voters so that both of them still get more than C. If, however, they’re sure that C will get 111 or more MPs supporting them, then the incentive becomes to pick one of A or B to give them a resounding victory in the final MP ballot and go to the members as the clear choice of the Parliamentary party, in the hope that will help them beat C.

Where this gets interesting is that these courses of action give C an incentive to make their support look smaller than it is. If we assume there have been more than three candidates, and there have been other MP ballots before, it’s in C’s interest to get enough support to make it through to the final three and no more. The further A and B believe C is from having 111 MPs backing them, the less incentive there is for A and B to co-ordinate to stop C. C thus has an incentive to hide their real number of supporters until the final round in order to create their best scenario for winning: getting themselves on the membership ballot without a strong ‘unity’ candidate against them.

In other words, when the next Tory leadership election comes around, expect there to be lots of shenanigans and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring where the actual vote tallies may not reflect the real support candidates have. It’ll be fun to watch, if you can forget that whoever emerges from it all will likely be leading the country afterwards.

History suggests that the next Tory leader will be someone we don’t expect

From relative obscurity to Number 10 in three years.
From relative obscurity to Number 10 in three years.
Since David Cameron’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek a third term as Prime Minister, a lot of ink and electrons have been used to analyse everything any senior Tory politician does in the light of their upcoming leadership battle. This was particularly evident at the recent conference when journalists were lining up to proclaim the next leadership battle would be between George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May.

The history of Tory leaders, especially since they began to be elected rather than emerging from the ‘magic circle’ of party grandees, suggests that this might not be the case. We’re probably around three years or so away from that leadership election taking place and that gives plenty of times for new faces to rise. Indeed, looking at previous Tory leaders, very few of them would have expected to become leader or Prime Minister three years before it happened.

Edward Heath was the first Tory leader to be directly elected by MPs and while his defeat of Reginald Maudling was something of a shock, he had perhaps the highest profile of any Tory leader three years before election, sitting in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal in charge of negotiations to join the EEC, having previously been Chief Whip.

Margaret Thatcher was also a member of the Cabinet three years before her election, serving as Secretary of State for Education but I think it’s fair to say that she wasn’t considered a possibility as a future leader, not least because ‘Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher’ was still fresh in people’s minds.

John Major’s rise was swift. Three years before he became leader, he’d just been appointed to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury but was generally overlooked in discussions of future Tory leaders, which looked more towards the big beasts both inside and outside the Cabinet.

William Hague hadn’t even made it to the Cabinet three years before he became leader, still serving as a Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. He’d become Secretary of State for Wales in 1995 after John Redwood’s resignation, but even when he stood for the leadership, the focus was on other candidates.

Iain Duncan Smith had been a rebellious backbencher during the Major government, but was brought into Hague’s shadow cabinet. Three years before he became leader, he was shadow social security secretary, but future leadership attention was focused on characters like Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo (both of whom he’d defeat in 2001).

Michael Howard had been considered a future leader before but three years before he actually got the job he wasn’t in the front line of politics, having returned to the backbenches from the shadow cabinet in 1999.

Finally, David Cameron jumped from backbencher to party leader in three years. In 2002, he was part of the Home Affairs Select Committee and discussing drug decriminalisation still a good few months away from being given a frontbench role and two years away from his first seat at the shadow cabinet table.

As I’ve noted before, all political trends have a tendency to be great predictors of the future right up until the moment they fail spectacularly (ask anyone who was sure Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win) and this could be the Tory leadership election that breaks the trend of relative outsiders defeating the more established candidates. However, the Tories do seem to go to outsider or rapidly rising candidates much more than the other parties have in the past, and it’s entirely possible that the same may apply when their next leadership contest comes around. Consider that the current leading candidates will all be under intense scrutiny while trying to maximise their exposure, which could well lead to both MPs and party members becoming weary at the sight of them, let alone the prospect of them leading the party for several years.

A candidate who can present themselves as a relative outsider or newcomer but with some experience at the top could, with the right timing, develop a real momentum heading into the election that could take them past their overly-exposed senior colleagues. Who it might be, I don’t know, and there’s the possibility that a fluke could propel someone to prominence at the right time, but I’d look at some of those in the lower=profile Cabinet positions or just making their way up the ranks as Ministers of State. History suggests one of them is more likely to make it to the top than someone currently high profile.

Labour leadership: a pair of what ifs

A bit too busy with the dissertation to blog much right now, but a couple of thoughts I thought I’d put out there to see if they might spark a discussion.

First, returning to a thought I had a few months ago, what if John Smith hadn’t stood for Labour leader in 1992? (Probably for health reasons, but the whys of it aren’t important) Would the line up of candidates look that impressive at the time? Sure, Blair was only two years away from winning the leadership but in 1992 he was relatively obscure and hadn’t come up with ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Would a call to modernise then fall on the same stony ground as Liz Kendall’s have now? Who else would be a credible contender in the climate of 1992?

Second, would a lot of the current trouble have been avoided if Labour’s electoral system was more like the Conservatives? Rather than just increasing the number of MPs needed to get nominated, Miliband’s reforms had followed the Tories in giving MPs an extended primary where they whittled down a large number of candidates to just two to face the membership/supporters/affiliates vote? With a much lower initial bar to being nominated, but a much-higher one to reach the voters, candidates who dropped out because of insufficient support this time like Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt could have been part of the process, while no one would have needed to lend Corbyn any nominations, but a lack of support from MPs would prevent him making it to the final stage. Would it have ended up as Burnham vs Cooper, or might something different have happened?

(I actually think the Tory leadership election process is a good one, that only has such a bad reputation because the first time it was tried, it was given a selection of poor candidates and a party that didn’t want to be united)

Leadership candidates respond on the big question: Cat person or dog person?

So, this all started when Chris Brooke decided he wanted to know which side of the ‘cat person/dog person’ the Labour leader candidates fell on:


He then tweeted all five Labour candidates to find out their position on this, but is yet to get an answer.

Deciding that this was an issue that had importance across parties, I decided to ask our candidates their stance on this:


And answers came back very quickly:


(Sympathy to Norman, as I know how sad it is when a cat dies)

But there we have it – very quick answers from our candidates, while Chris is still waiting for the Labour ones to respond. Speculation about hastily convened focus groups attempting to work out which pet is more aspirational is probably not misplaced.

However, the last word should go to YouGov, whose profiler (thanks to Matt Sanders for the link) tells us that people who like Norman Lamb are more likely to be cat people, while those who like Tim Farron are more likely to have a dog. For once, it seems polling may have accurately captured public opinion.

Should we have more interim leaders in British politics?

Would it have been terrible to wait until 2012 for this election?
Would it have been terrible to wait until 2012 for this election?
After my ‘what if Nick Clegg loses his seat?‘ post the other day, I was thinking more about the various party leaderships after the election, given that regardless of how well they do in their constituencies, at least one of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband will be out of a job as party leader after it.

Defeated leaders quitting after elections is something that’s become an entirely natural and regular part of British politics. The last time a leader of one of the big two parties didn’t step down after an election defeat was Neil Kinnock in 1987, and the post-election resignation speech has become a ritual of the political landscape. It also means that the post-election environment usually has a party leadership campaign running through it, regardless of whether that’s the best time to have it.

The rush to get things done and not leave a vacuum is common throughout British politics, of course – for instance, look at how quickly we formed a coalition compared to most other countries that have required coalition talks. The same applies to parties – the idea that a party could go for a while without a permanent leader being in place is not even considered, even if at times it might be the best way for a party to proceed.

Although I’m sure this will fall on stony ground, I want to propose that whichever party or parties end up leaderless after the next election doesn’t immediately rush into a full leadership election, but considers appointing someone as an interim leader for a period, so they can have a proper consideration of the future direction of their party and what they need in a leader. We have a system now where we know when the next election is going to happen, and I’m not convinced that the leader of any party necessarily needs the full five years to get themselves in position for it.

What I would suggest instead is that the party decide on how they’re going to appoint an interim leader, who’ll be in place for something like eighteen months with a remit to steady the ship and get the party ready to have a proper debate as part of a leadership contest, not just a rush to appoint whoever is the flavour of the month at the time of the election campaign. How they appoint someone as interim leader is up to them, but we’ve seen how party leadership election rules can be gamed by MPs ensuring only one person gets nominated, so it shouldn’t be that hard. I’d also expect that any interim leader would likely be some kind of senior and experienced figure, unlikely to take part in the actual leadership election.

There are similar systems used in other countries, be it explicit interim leaders in Canadian politics or the routine of not choosing the lead opposition candidate until relatively close to the election as happens in many European countries. It gives parties a chance to pause and take a breath before plunging straight into the long run-up to the next election campaign, as well as waiting to see how the political culture is closer to the coming election rather than making important decisions still in the shadow of the last one.

We’ve had some leaders who turned out to be interim leaders while the party sorted itself out – Ming Campbell and Iain Duncan Smith spring readily to mind – so perhaps its time someone did it officially? Maybe we’d all be better off if our political parties weren’t rushing to decide their future when they haven’t yet worked out their present.

What if Nick Clegg loses his seat at the election?

Nick-Clegg-004(First, a disclaimer: this is not a prediction of anything that might happen at the general election. I’ve got no idea what will happen in Sheffield Hallam or any other seat in May, and I’m not making any predictions about what might happen in the election, nationally or locally.)

As ever, when actually asked to explain how the systems of British politics works, and not just repeat some juicy gossip, Britain’s political columnists have come up short. They can read the constituency polls that say Nick Clegg might lost his seat at the election, but when asked to think what that might mean, they have no idea. Sometimes, it feels that having knowledge of how things work is rapidly disappearing from our media, because it’s all too complicated to have to remember facts.

What’s most frustrating about a lot of the ‘nobody knows what might happen’ is that the Liberal Democrats have twice found themselves unexpectedly leaderless in the past decade, though both of those were because of sudden resignations rather than the actions of the electorate. The procedure established by the party in these circumstances is quite clear, even if it’s not in the party’s Constitution: the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party becomes acting leader until such time as a new leader is elected by the party’s regular processes.

So, that’s perfectly clear, except for one small problem. The current deputy leader of the parliamentary party is Sir Malcolm Bruce, who’s not standing at the election, but appears to be holding on to his position until then, which means it will be vacant at the start of the next Parliament. It is important to note that while this role is often referred to as the party’s deputy leader, it is technically only deputy leader of the party in Parliament and as such is only elected by the party’s MPs.

So, if Clegg was to lose his seat in May, there’d be no one to replace him, and there’d clearly be chaos, right? Well, yes and no. Despite the party being full of many people who love nothing more than arguing over a constitutional clause for hours on end (and if you’re that sort of person, you too could become a member of English Council and do it to your heart’s content) I think all but the most stubborn would recognise that this is a case where force majeure applies.

It’s established that the Deputy Leader becomes acting leader when there’s an unexpected vacancy, and that the deputy leader is elected by the party’s MPs. While there may be an established procedure for electing a deputy leader, I can’t see anyone reasonably objecting to the remianing MPs following a very truncated process as soon as they’re able to meet, with their decision then further authorised by the party’s Federal Executive as soon as it meets. In that situation, I would expect the parliamentary party to meet as soon as possible on the Friday (the deciding factor on meeting time may be the timetable for flights from Orkney to London) and the FE to meet on Saturday morning. How urgent the process needs to be would likely be determined by the rest of the result – very rushed if it looks like the party will be taking part in coalition negotiations, somewhat more leisurely if a party has got an overall majority in the Commons.

Who might that interim leader be? I have no idea – I’m not making those sort of predictions, remember? All I know is that there is a simple way for the party to choose an interim leader if the current leader isn’t returned to Parliament, and it’d likely be a herald of some interesting political times if it had to be used.

The future of UKIP: when Farage goes, watch out for the big fight

This post from Alex Harrowell on the travails of UKIP candidate selection and this post on Conservative Home about the five different types of UKIPper (itself a variation on Alex’s ‘Three UKIPs’ idea) got me thinking before Christmas, and for once those thoughts remain coherent after it.

Whether you think there are three, five, seven or ninety-five of them, it’s clear that UKIP does now have a set of factions within it, even if none of them are formally organised. That’s not unusual for a party of its size and is perhaps inevitable for a party with rapid growth and an image that’s defined more by what it’s against than what it’s for. Being anti-EU or anti-immigration doesn’t come with a coherent set of other policy preferences and so people joining UKIP are quite likely to have other opinions that spread across the political spectrum.

This isn’t something that’s unique to UKIP, of course. Most growing and developing parties, especially those resting on issues outside of the normal left-right divide, have to go through a process of determining ‘but what are we for?’ at some point within their existence. One prominent example is the debate between the ‘Realo’ and ‘Fundi’ wings of the German Greens after their first electoral breakthroughs, which was mirrored in the debate over the Green 2000 proposals in the British Greens.

At some point, UKIP is going to have to go through their version of that fight. There’s signs that it might have kicked off in a small way already with the current fights going on in the party over candidate selection for the General Election, but the party has an advantage in that it has a leader who isn’t strongly tied to any faction. In terms of party organisation, Farage’s ability to say what his audience wants to hear and to not commit too strongly to any positive policy means that all the factions, however nascent they may be, think he’s one of them.

There’s an idea put forward in the academic literature on party leadership (see Stark or Quinn, for instance) that’s relevant here – the first thing a potential party leader must be able to do to win the leadership is to be able to unify the party. While others might seem more acceptable in policy terms or electability, the key to becoming a leader is to be able to appeal to (and lead) all the sections of the party, not one.

The big question for UKIP is what happens if and when Farage decides (again) that he doesn’t want to be leader any more? Two interesting factors come into play: first, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the party who can unify them in the way Farage does, and second, the way the party elects its leaders doesn’t do anything to encourage a unifier. Where most parties use some form of preference voting in their leadership elections (even the Tories have an exhaustive ballot of MPs) to ensure the winner has to be able to get majority support, UKIP’s leadership elections are first past the post, where the winner merely needs a plurality of support. What that means is that to become UKIP leader when there’s a vacancy, you don’t need to appeal to the majority of the party. Instead, you just need to get the support of the largest minority in the party and hope that the rest of the factions remain divided. In a party where no one’s quite sure of the relative sizes and strengths of the factions, what we could see is a very vicious battle for dominance.

It actually puts Farage into a strong position, as he can use the ‘apres moi, la deluge’ argument to see off any challenges and threats to his leadership, but if he chooses to go, we may well find that UKIP can keep entertaining us in new ways.

Wishing for a return to old politics, as though wishing might make it so

It must be a thing if two Sunday columnists have both noticed it – Andrew Rawnsley and Matthew D’Ancona both notice that there are simultaneous plots against both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and attempt to work out what it means.

For me, it’s Rawnsley who finds the best explanation:

In Britain, it runs deeper than that. Austerity has sharpened and accelerated a much longer-term trend of disintegrating support for the two major parties. They’ve gone, the solid blocks of red and blue voters that the major party leaders used to be able to mobilise. There has been a decades-long decline in the blue-red duopoly. It is the bad luck of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband to be leaders of their parties when the music finally stopped.

As I’ve said before, we’re still living through the process of a long and slow breakdown of the old party system in British politics. The number of people not voting has steadily risen – 1997 was the last election when a party got more votes than the number of people not voting – and amongst those who are voting, support for the main two parties has been continually dwindling to the point where polls are now showing them both dropping below 33%, meaning ‘other’ could now be said to be topping the poll.

The various plots – in all parties – are often coming from people who are trying to persuade themselves that this is only a temporary blip and that normal service will be resumed as soon as they confidently state that they’ve rediscovered what normality is. Once they’ve got their particular Johnson as leader, everyone will suddenly realise what fools they’ve been and things will go back to the way the plotters think they should be. That ‘the way things should be’ hasn’t been the way things are for almost fifty years now is entirely inconsequential. Some people have an assumption that Britain should be a two-party state and any diversion away from that is just a temporary blip that will be corrected as soon as the right people are back in charge.

Maybe I’m wrong and getting the right leaders in place is all it would take to magically revert the system back to its default settings, but I suspect not. It feels to me that what people want and expect from politics and politicians has fundamentally changed, and the current system can’t address it. A continuing series of tweaks can stave off a full collapse for a short time, but not for good. The foundations of the system are crumbling away from beneath us, and that must be acknowledged before any real fix can come.

How the stalking horse became extinct

David Cameron could face a leadership challenge from his own backbenches if Scotland votes in favour of independence, as Tory rebels blame him for presiding over the break-up of the Union.

The Independent understands that discussions have already taken place among Tory MPs considering standing a candidate against the Prime Minister if the Yes campaign is triumphant on 18 September.

The idea of a ‘stalking horse’ triggering a leadership challenge is widespread in British political commentary. It’s easy to see why: the idea of the brave challenger following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher or Michael Heseltine to challenge an unpopular leader, forcing a leadership election that would be a clash of the big political beasts is catnip to political commentators, enabling them to completely forget any kind of discussion about policy and talk entirely about personality and the election as a big game.

The problem with this vision is that it’s not actually possible in any party. The ‘stalking horse’ was a foible of the Conservative Party’s leadership election rules that disappeared when William Hague reformed the system after his election, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats never had a system that allowed it. The quirk in the Tory rules was that they didn’t require all potential candidates in a leadership election to be in the race from the start, but allowed them to enter at later rounds of the contest. As such, a stalking horse candidate could challenge the leader, and if they received sufficient support, other candidates could enter the race.

This was something that purely belonged to the Conservative leadership rules, and was in place because the decision was only made amongst MPs. Once parties put the leadership question to the wider membership, When an election’s a simple ballot in Westminster, it’s easy to have multiple rounds with different names, but if you’re balloting the entire membership, a set process and single ballot is a lot easier to administer.

The other reason for stalking horses disappearing is that they’re not a very good way of running leadership elections. There are two parts to the process of removing an incumbent leader: first, deciding whether you want the current leader to continue or be replaced; second, if they’re replaced, deciding who should replace them. The old Tory system conflated those two parts of the process, so that anyone wanting to remove the current leader had to vote for the stalking horse, but that vote could then make the stalking horse the leader, who the voter might like less than the current leader.Effectively, every vote has to be cast tactically, which might make for good drama but doesn’t mean they’re making the best decision on who’s going to be leader.

All the main parties now have systems that separate these two parts of the process, and none of them have a system that allows for stalking horses. So, if you hear or read a supposed political expert talking about stalking horses and leadership challenges, they’re letting on that they don’t understand the processes they’re commentating on. Someone can challenge a leader all they want but the rules now (especially for the Tories) mean they can only get them removed, not face them head to head.

(A couple of interesting books on leadership elections and structures, if you want to know more: Stark’s Choosing a Leader and Quinn’s Electing and Ejecting Party Leaders in Britain)