The Australian Labor party is in a bit of a crisis; nearly destroyed in Queensland and likely to receive similar treatment nationally, falling membership numbers, a highly factionalised parliamentary party and a highly damaging leadership spill (as they are called): it would be silly to suggest the Australian Labor party is in rude health. It is looking to the future to find ways of renewing itself and increasing and involving members has been touted by some Laborites.
It’s not a new thing for parties to want to reconnect with their base and it’s good for any party to make its members feel valued, and hence make membership more attractive! One suggestion has been to adopt a US-style primary system for candidates – in itself, an interesting idea which merits its own blog post – with some proposing a similar system for the federal leadership. In effect, this would be transplanting the Canadian system for all three main federal parties where all party members vote for the leader, either in person or via proportionally allocated delegates. Others promote a more moderate system where parliamentarians retain a pre-eminent role in selecting leaders but members are involved, more akin to the British system for the Conservatives and Labour.
The Sunday Morning Herald column asserts that the revolving door to the party leadership has damaged Australian Labor more than anything else in the last parliament*. They may well be right, but even in the Canadian total mass-membership system, there’s no reason that would change. The Canadian Liberals have had six leaders in the last eight years, and will have another next year. In fact, there was a book recently: Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders in the Anglo Parliamentary World. I confess I have not (yet!) read this, but as reviews make clear: there is no difference in lifespan between systems. The next argument is that it would bring these decisions closer to the membership and potentially the public; perhaps. It could easily be argued, as the review does, that your selectorates dissipate immediately after they’ve elected you. But what is truly clear is that those who are most involved and know most about what’s going on at the centre, our duly elected representatives, are barely involved. It undoubtedly takes power away from MPs, which in my view is often a bad thing where parties are concerned. After all, they actually represent the public. Party members only represent themselves.
It’s true: you could do a half-way house solution and keep MPs as overall power-brokers while introducing some membership participation. It does rather feel like tokenism though, and the question of quite how much that would ameliorate the situation is dubious. In the last few decades in the UK both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have involved the party membership – either as a runoff of the caucus’ two favourite candidates (Conservative) or having their votes as weighted to a third of the total but involved throughout the process (Labour). I know of no particular empowering effect this has had on party membership; in fact I am almost certain membership numbers have gone down since then, although it’s highly probably other factors were also at work.
Labor’s problems stem from something more fundamental: factions, a lack of good, credible candidates, and policy which doesn’t engage the electorate. I would argue that breaking the power of the factions, selecting better candidates (and hopefully MPs) and involving party members and the public in party policy-making would do more to help them than any tinkering with leadership selection. Perhaps some form of open primary might help with candidates – it certainly had a positive effect in a few UK cases – but this is way too big a topic for one blog post. That and I’ve not looked for any research yet…