how to elect a leader

In Australia, the Rudd Labor Government is now either dead even or leading, depending on which poll has most credence. Rudd and his cabinet (the cabinet are also the executive committee of the party caucus) just proposed a new plan for electing the parliamentary leader.

Leaders would be elected jointly by caucus and individual party members on a 50/50 basis, leaders could only be removed by a 75% vote of caucus, caucus would regain the right to elect the cabinet and the ministry. These are reasonably radical proposals for the ALP, although it looks like they will pass.

Partly the motivation is electoral, the electorate needs a guarantee that there will be no repeats of the Gillard disaster, or the equally disastrous leadership coups in the NSW branch, but I think the changes show a genuine concern for reform is well. Rudd was the first Labor leader empowered to pick the cabinet, so it’s interesting that he’s abandoning that in favour of a return to caucus election of the cabinet.

I guess it raises more broadly the question of how democratic parties should select leaders and candidates.

7 thoughts on “how to elect a leader

  1. Having the leader continue despite being backed by just over a quarter of the caucus seems a bit problematic, although perhaps less so in light of the elected ministry.

    I like the British Conservative Party’s run-offs among MPs until there are two candidates, and then election by party members.

  2. I’m a reactionary about these things. In a parliamentary system, the claim of a politician to be chief minister essentially comes down to his or her ability to get legislation such as the budget through the legislature. Otherwise the other half of the executive (the governor general in Australia) might as well pick anyone for the job. The more you break the link between being leader of a party and leader of a legislative caucus, the less reason to have ministries headed by the party leaders.

    If the nominal leader of X party is in fact hated by a majority of the elected X MPs but was put there by party members anyway -a situation that actually happened in the UK during Ian Duncan Smith’s tenure as leader of the Conservative Party and arguably has also happend with the Canadian Liberals- if X has a majoirty of members in the lower house, I’m not sure why the head of state shouldn’t be able to ignore that fact and select someone who has the support of the X parliamentary caucus (or the dissidents combined with other parties), as being more able to command a majority in the house.

    So we will wind up back in the eighteenth and nineteenth century system of government formation, due obstensibly to making thing more democratic by having leaders elected by the membership. This is another casualty of presidentialization. For parliamentary systems to work, the party leader has to be leader of the parliamentary caucus.

    The way to prevent the sort of churn we have seen with Australian Labor and the Canadian Liberals is to go to fixed terms for party leaders, something I am surprised hasn’t been used more often. Though I think usually in these situations the voters usually solve the problem by not voting for parties plagued with leadership turmoil.

  3. Ed, fixed terms violate your own principle of parliamentary leadership!

    Your last point about voter correction is certainly supported by Christopher Kam’s very excellent book on party discipline in Westminster systems.

  4. I’m not really persuaded that the heads of state of the parliamentary world are all lurking in their palaces, wig and frock coat in hand, waiting, waiting…

    The reality is that Australia and New Zealand are the only examples of major parties, as far as I know, where the leader is selected and removed by the caucus alone. The labor parties in both countries are moving towards more inclusive leadership selections. If Ed’s scenario has any validity, then, we can expect all parliamentary heads of state outside Australasia to be acting as he predicts.

    So let us all sit quietly and wait for the rustle of silk and horsehair to reach us.

    • Yes, it does seem to be highly unusual in practice for leadership selection (and de-selection) to be exclusively in the hands of the parliamentary caucus.

      The rustle of silk and horsehair would indeed be well worth waiting for.

    • Excuse me, Tom, but I have to ask: When did any Mitterrand brother become head of UK Labour? You’d think with all the controversy over immigration in the UK that this would not be a good move for the party.

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