The Conservative Party demonstrated their ruthless efficiency in the manner in which they elected a new leader. The EU referendum result was announced on the 24th of June; by the 13th of July the country had a new Prime Minister. Theresa May, the victor, kept a low profile during the EU referendum campaign, said almost nothing of note during the leadership campaign, yet emerged victorious after her rivals each in turn sacrificed their political careers at her altar in what appeared to be an elaborate pitch for the story arc of Season 5 of House of Cards.
Things are not so simple in the Labour Party however.
Labour are embarking on their second leadership election in less than a year after ill-advisedly changing their election process to give the membership more control. These changes have seen large numbers of people joining Labour who appear not to share the Parliamentary Party’s values, but do share the values of the man who now happens to be leading it. The Parliamentary Party finds itself in the untenable situation in which it is in conflict with both its leader and the grassroots.
It is not clear how this situation can be resolved; the grassroots will not accept the deposition of Corbyn and the Parliamentary Party, if they want to stand any chance of forming a government, cannot accept Corbyn as their leader.
This peculiar situation raises questions about what a political party is meant to be. Fundamentally, in a representative democracy, political parties are a collection of like-minded Parliamentarians. Naturally, in order to provide a more robust infrastructure and bring in funding to support this, parties are expanded to include a fee-paying membership. The idea that this fee-paying membership should choose the party’s leader does not hold up to scrutiny, however.
Under First Past The Post (FPTP), the fundamental purpose of a party should be to win elections. This is the only way parties can enact their policies and make a difference. In order to win elections, parties have to design a manifesto that appeals to as broad a range of the electorate as possible, which is best achieved through top-down, rather than bottom-up, membership-led policy making. Top-down policy making is inherently more holistic and reactive, as those involved in the process have a stake in appealing to a wide range of people while adapting to changes in the national psyche.
Allowing the membership to choose a leader lends itself instead to a bottom-up policy making approach as the leader is accountable to the membership rather than the Parliamentary Party. This is a problem because the resultant policies will reflect the narrower interests of the membership rather than the broader interests of the electorate. These policies will continue to attract a committed subsection of like-minded people, which will at best entrench existing policy and otherwise lead to a cycle of increasing radicalism as the membership becomes more exclusive. Essentially, this reduces the party to a pressure group when it should be an inclusive mass movement.
Corbyn may argue that achieving 59.5% of the vote from the Labour membership gives him the biggest mandate of any Labour leader in history, but under FPTP the only mandate that matters is the one drawn from the general election.
A mandate to lead the Labour Party to a historic election defeat, leaving thousands on the moderate left with no representation and nowhere to go, is no mandate at all.