Tue, 23 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Unless we change the rules, my party may end up with the wrong leader


3 min read

Twice in my political career I have turned up at Westminster after an election where my party lost office – once in February 1974, and again in May 1997. Sadly, it has happened again.

We must not forget about colleagues who lost their seats. Through no fault of their own, friends were swept out with the tide in 1997. They felt let down, disillusioned and abandoned by their party. A letter of condolence or a phone call from the leadership, followed up by a drink or a meal with former chums and, if appropriate, support and advice to help them adjust – all this will help soften the blow. Who knows, they might then be back at the next election.

Yes, we should recognise that we lost. It was a campaign we were never going to win and we should congratulate the winners. But the role of the opposition is to then hold the government to account. With the loss of key players and the possible distraction of a leadership election, there is always a risk that this obligation gets overlooked.

We should change the rules, so MPs choose the party leader, not its members

The Labour Party has made commitments on tax, spend and borrowing that no expert commentator thinks are achievable – the conspiracy of silence. Labour MPs didn’t join their party to implement Conservative policies. It is not inconceivable that Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves find themselves besieged after an Autumn Statement containing decisions that critics will call a return to austerity. The country will need a responsible opposition if there is turbulence.

We should change the rules, so MPs choose the party leader, not its members. (This applies to all parties.) Changing the rules of the Conservative Party is complex – but MPs could short-circuit this by changing the rules of the 1922 Committee.

They could simply require any candidate wanting to stand to agree to withdraw if they came second. Then, as with the election of Michael Howard, Theresa May and Rishi Sunak, members would not have the final say – though they should, of course, be consulted. William Hague – who introduced the change from the previous system, which left the choice with MPs – now concedes it was a mistake. MPs are accountable for their decisions in a way that party members are not.

When they choose a leader, MPs tend to ask the question, “Who is most likely to help me win my seat?” Party members ask a different question: “Which of the two contenders best reflects my views?” As party membership shrinks and becomes more polarised, the risk grows that their views will diverge from those of the MPs. (In the two cases where party members second-guessed the MPs – Iain Duncan Smith and Liz Truss – MPs had to put things right shortly after.)

Unless changed, my party may end up with a new leader who is less likely to attract the middle-of-the-road voter, crucial to winning the next election.

Finally, there is a crisis of confidence in our political system. Too often on the doorstep, I heard people say they were fed up and wouldn’t vote. (The way politicians were treated by some of the media was disgraceful and hasn’t helped.)

The political class must collectively get its act together and raise its game. To his credit, Keir Starmer recognises this. We should all be careful with the language we use, treat our opponents with respect, set high standards of personal conduct and, together, win back the trust that has been lost. 



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