Liberals Should Choose Their Leader The Way The Tories Do

Written by:
15 July 2022
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It’s an exciting time to be a Tory in Britain. The contest to be Conservative Party leader and prime minister started with a dozen potential candidates. This was reduced to eight who stood in the first round of voting by the 358 Tory MPs (270 men and 88 women). 

That number is now down to six, following the elimination of Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt. More will be eliminated until next month when the Conservatives’ 200,000 party members choose between the last two candidates. The winner will be declared on September 5. 

There will be debates, public meetings and probably no shortage of gaffes and stunts. Crucially, although the contest is only in its early stages it looks as if it might include something approximating a battle of ideas. 

There are candidates who are Thatcherite and anti-Thatcherite (they would follow the Treasury Department orthodoxy), Brexiter and (for all intents and purposes) Remainer, some who are as green and left wing as Boris Johnson and those whose “environmental credentials” The Guardian has scored as one out of five.

The most interesting candidate is the 42-year-old former junior minister Kemi Bedenoch. A passionate defender of freedom of speech, she declared: “[Y]ou often hear … that the debate on free speech is a conspiracy whipped up to spark a culture war, or it’s a cover for bigoted middle-aged white men to spout politically incorrect nonsense. Well, I’m not middle-aged, I’m not white and I’m not a man …” 

She is also a net zero sceptic and describes the policy as “unilateral economic disarmament”.

Badenoch has come from nowhere to be the second-most popular candidate among the party faithful.

Good for democracy

Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt have been eliminated from the Tory leadership contest. AP What’s happening in Britain is far removed from the staid traditions of Westminster parliamentary politics. It’s a leadership contest closer in style to a series of American-style primaries, and the Conservative Party and politics in general is the better for it. 

What’s happening is good for democracy. 

It’s not only the Tories that do this. The British Labour Party has a similar process for picking its leader.

The Tory leadership contest will stretch to nearly two months. Compare that to Australia. 

Within two hours of Josh Frydenberg losing his seat at the election, Peter Dutton was guaranteed to be the next Liberal leader and stood unopposed. 

The ALP is better because its members, in theory at least and sometimes in practice, have a role in the deciding the leader, as they did in 2013 in a ballot between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten. 

There are basically two arguments against party members choosing the leader. 

The first is that it’s incompatible with the collegiality of MPs in a parliamentary system. But this “collegiality” is exactly what’s wrong with modern parliamentary politics. As party rooms fill with fair to middling middle managers, these middle managers inevitably favour their own. Hence, Scott Morrison.

 Second, party members are viewed as either too right wing (the Coalition) or too left wing (the ALP) to select “electable” candidates who will appeal to middle-of the-road voters. Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party is usually cited as proof of this. 

That’s true, but MPs make mistakes too. Malcolm Turnbull wouldn’t have come in the top three of a ballot of Liberal Party members for preferred leader. Yet after Liberal MPs chose him, they complained of party members’ lack of enthusiasm to donate their time and money to Turnbull’s campaign.

The Liberals’ most successful voter-winner of the past 20 years, Tony Abbott, would easily have won any party members’ ballot, while many of his fellow MPs (including quite a number in his cabinet) only grudgingly accepted him as leader. 

At this year’s election, Liberal candidates were reduced to paying university students to stand at booths with how-to-vote cards because of the absence of party volunteers. 

As one long-standing Liberal Party member put it: “If the Liberals want to adopt teal policies, they can get the teals to hand out for them.” 

As Liberals obsess about gender quotas, there’s little likelihood they will embrace a change that has the potential to revitalise a party in opposition federally, in six of the eight states and territories, and on the cusp of becoming moribund.

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