The UK is about to learn leadership lessons Canada has been struggling with

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As the Conservative Party in the UK has coronated Boris Johnson as their new leader at the end of their leadership selection process, there have been billboards that caught my attention all the way over here in Canada.  Those billboards have been questioning the democratic legitimacy of a process by which some hundred thousand members of the Conservative Party can select the next prime minister, out of some 66 million people in the UK.  These particular objections have a couple of different facets that deserve to be poked into, one of which Canada has a great deal of experience with, and for which we should have served as an object lesson for the UK not to repeat our mistakes.  Sadly, that has not proven to be the case as of yet.

On the first level, the objection to the fact that 0.15 percent of the population can choose the prime minister is a troubling one on the basis of pure civics in a Westminster system, because we don’t directly elect prime ministers.  If the face of this argument suggests that is the case, it’s a blow for civic literacy, and we should all be concerned that this kind of ignorance is being publicly heralded.  If the call is for a directly elected prime minister akin to a president, then that is a wholly separate debate, but one that is indirectly being aided by this kind of bastardized leadership selection system.  The fact that this process by which party members can elect the leader, who will then become the prime minister, is a kind of proxy that some of us in Canada are well familiar with.  There was a time in Alberta, during the period of one-party rule by the Progressive Conservatives, where periodic leadership elections became a kind of de facto presidential election process, because the outcome would always select the premier, and the loose party membership rules meant that anyone who paid their ten dollars could cast a vote, right up to the day they were voting — even when it went to a second ballot.

This system was hugely damaging to party politics because party memberships essentially became worthless — there were no longer any grassroots connections for people to gravitate toward, and it allowed the leaders’ staff to centralize power as the party itself was hollowed out.  Nevertheless, this kind of abomination was spreading across other parties in Canada, and when they started feeling the need to populate their voter identification databases, they further debased the systems — witness the federal Liberals and the creation of the “supporter” class that forwent party memberships and those minimal charges in favour of anyone who could vote in their leadership process, and from that came the messianic arrival of Justin Trudeau, who centralized power even further in his office, going so far as to ensure the party’s constitution was amended to cement that shift in power.

The UK is certainly starting to get a taste of what this kind of a membership-driven leadership process, which brings me to my second point, about how this system is eroding any kind of accountability within parties because leaders feel that they are being accorded a kind of “democratic legitimacy” when they are elected by tens of thousands of membership votes, unlike the traditional system of caucus selection — something Canada started turning away from in 1919, but the UK only started in the last decade.  This move is certainly a key facet of what is broken in Canadian politics, which the UK has signed onto, and Australia is also turning to, because they ignored the lessons about what is wrong with it.

It only took a few years in Canada for us to learn the downsides of this process, when William Lyon Mackenzie King was faced with a scandal but was able to tell his caucus that they didn’t select him and they could not fire him, as they would have if they had chosen him.  The UK learned that lesson almost immediately in the Labour Party as Jeremy Corbyn’s election from a party membership base infiltrated by a group of Corbyn loyalists, calling themselves “Momentum,” which started driving the party to ruination.  In the wake of poor policy choices, and a resurgence of anti-Semitism by party adherents, attempts to remove Corbyn have been thwarted, especially as Momentum’s influence was able to fend off an attempt to hold a new leadership election.  Accountability for Corbyn’s poor leadership is necrotizing in that party, and yet nobody seems to yet be calling out the poor decision by the party to move to this system of membership election.

The UK Conservatives didn’t quite get to experience this process to its fullest the last time around, because Theresa May’s opponent dropped out after some particularly ill-considered media comments, so she was never really able to wield the cudgel of “democratic legitimacy” to her caucus when an attempt to remove her was made.  It should be noted that their system has a couple of additional safeguards that Canadian leadership process do not, being that the caucus must whittle down the field to two names that will be put to the membership, and that the 1922 Committee still has some ability to remove a leader in a once-a-year opportunity — though that ability may yet be blunted with the “democratic legitimacy” argument after this process completes itself.

Now that Johnson has come out ahead in this process, he will be a prime minister with fewer mechanisms of accountability than any UK prime minister that came before him.  The Canadian experience has not been positive in this regard, with parties that have become shells of their former selves, and are now glorified personality cults with some additional branding elements.  All of the warning signs are flashing that the UK is heading in this direction, but nobody seems to be paying attention.  Take it from Canada — only danger lies along this path.  Learn from our mistakes, and abandon this membership selection process, before your parliament suffers as ours has.

Photo Credit: NBC News

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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