Selecting the right democrats

Is Dominic Cummings anti-democratic? That’s the charge many level at him as he tells his tall tales of Westminster intrigue. But I think they miss the point. Cummings’ stories aren’t really about how our political leaders are elected, so much as how they are selected.

It’s fun and scary to imagine Cummings and his dozen-or-so co-conspirators darkly manipulating British democracy. A uniquely malign and undemocratic influence on our body politic. Getting Boris Johnson – a person he believes is unfit for high office – into Number 10, pulling a con on the nation.

But Johnson was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party (and become Prime Minister) after a ballot of 139,318 party members, from a shortlist of two whittled down by 313 Conservative MPs.

Johnson was re-elected Prime Minister when 32 million voters turned out in December 2019 and elected a huge majority of Conservative MPs.

He was elected as an MP himself by the voters of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, by a majority of 7,210.

Cummings can’t oust the Prime Minister days after an election. He would need to foment an unthinkable rebellion among Tory MPs to trigger a leadership election.

Cummings didn’t exercise any outsized influence over those electorates, any more than the billionaire press barons, party donors and campaign groups.

What Cummings claims to have done is distort the selectorate that put Johnson forward.

Selectorates are often accused of being undemocratic, or conversely celebrated for exemplifying party democracy. But why do we care if these internal processes are democratic, if the candidates they put forward ultimately have to get elected by the general public?

One reason is that the First Past the Post electoral system creates an enormous number of safe seats. The Electoral Reform Society found that 192 Parliamentary seats haven’t changed hands since World War 2. One, in Devon, has been Conservative since 1835. In those constituencies it is the local party machinery that in effect chooses the MP, not the general voting public. At the local council level I suspect it’s even worse.

The general trend in the UK has been towards more internal democracy in political parties. Ed Miliband reformed the process for choosing the Labour leader, giving more power to members. The Conservative Party followed suit, in a fashion. Parties like the Green Party and Liberal Democrats make a point of their internally democratic selection processes.

The idea being that the way candidates are chosen should be internally democratic, before they are put forward to the external democratic test.

But few have a completely open process, in which any person can stand and put their case to the party faithful.

In the world of internal selections, Cummings is not an outlier. He is how political parties work. Cabals and factions manoeuvre, either in private or through tedious press briefings, to get their preferred candidates into plum seats and positions of influence. They either pick the candidates without any internal democracy, or they try to influence or distort the internal democratic process. He might have more influence than most, but there have always been power brokers in political parties.

But in How Democracies Die, two American political scientists argued that Trump’s ascendancy was a direct result of this move towards internal democracy in the Republican Party. In most of the party’s history, grandees have selected candidates in smoke-filled back rooms at party conventions, manipulating the process to get the man they wanted. The virtue of this process, the authors argue, is that it screened out electorally potent demagogues like Henry Ford.

By allowing an increasingly polarised selectorate of registered Republicans to select their candidate, all of the centre-right candidates were quickly discarded, and the contest drifted to the extremes. The Democrats could well go the same way, though some combination of member judgement or party hack manipulation saw Hilary Clinton and then Joe Biden see off Bernie Sanders (more’s the pity).

Their warning is based on studies of countries like Russia, Turkey and Hungary where democracy has effectively died, not after coups or revolutions but the erosion of norms, institutions, laws.

The real danger the authors of that book point to is the breakdown of democratic norms that make political systems work.

Party members come to select ever-more polarising figures, and tolerate – or celebrate and reward – those who cast doubt on the legitimacy of the opposition. Those Labour MPs who cast the Tories as essentially immoral and evil; Tory MPs who case Labour as unpatriotic and dangerous.

Two British political scientists, Tim Bale and Paul Webb, have demonstrated that party members and MPs are different from their party’s voters, and the median position of the general public.

One danger the American political scientists point to is the outsize influence of party members, if not moderated by a diversity of membership and an attention to the views and values of the wider public. Polarised memberships select polarising MPs, who contribute to a polarising public sphere. Moderation in this process is difficult, and is all too easily overridden as polarising appeals to the base can be so potent in getting selected.

(An interesting side note is that more radical Labour members want to drag MPs away from their voters’ views, but the opposite is the case with Conservatives.)

This is where I think Cummings’ darkness lies: his willingness to lie, to provoke conflict, to delegitimise not just his opposition but key institutions of the British democratic system. To drive politics to the extremes. To promote the selection of a candidate that he believes is unfit for office because it serves his purposes. His darkness lies in his values and methods in influencing the selectorate and electorate, not the fact that he can gain such influence.

He may be an outlier in these methods, but they aren’t unknown to our system.

It’s clear that many factions manoeuvre in party selection processes to promote people on the basis of ideology and factional fealty rather than capability. Indeed candidates generally campaign on the basis of their vision and policies, not their track record of achievement, their experience in leading and managing large organisations or navigating Parliamentary politics. Party members don’t learn much about those things, and often aren’t particularly well informed to judge them on those bases.

An old colleague, Darren Johnson, used to tell me that the Green Party membership was generally sensible and selected good candidates for top positions in open contests. The roll call of high-profile elected Greens in England bears this out – Caroline Lucas, Jenny Jones, Darren Johnson, Molly Scott Cato, Sian Berry, Caroline Russell.

But the Green Party has been prey to factionalism, which poisons the internal elections for less high profile posts on the party executive.

(With a leadership election on the way, the methods that Green Party, candidates and internal campaign groups choose to approach the contest is important. They can – like Cummings – throw the democratic norms out the window in the belief that it is ultimately the vote that matters, the only democratic test, and that their particular end justifies any means. They can polarise and delegitimise, focus on faultline ideological issues rather than the breadth of qualities the roles require. Or they can embrace norms of mutual respect, diversity of thought and adherence to the spirit of the rules.)

All political parties should be worrying less about whether Cummings has a plot to oust the Prime Minister, and more about whether their processes and culture are selecting the right democrats to go forward for election.

Too many Cummings-like fixers, factions and candidates would do irreparable damage to our democracy.

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