How do we elect our leaders? Part one


After the events of the last few weeks further demonstrated the inability of Stephane Dion to remain as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Dion announced last Monday that he would resign as soon as the party chose an interim leader. Dion had announced his resignation following the October election, and a leadership convention was planned for May, with three contenders. On Monday 8th, Dominic LeBlanc withdrew and supported Michael Ignatieff, and Ignatieff’s main rival, former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, withdrew on Tuesday, giving room for Ignatieff to be elected interim Leader by the Liberal Party executive in consultation with the caucus on Wednesday 10th December. The convention will still be held in May, but is expected to be a coronation, with Ignatieff solidly in place as Leader of the Opposition or even Prime Minister. The difficulty the Liberal Party had in reconciling its lengthy leadership process with the need to make a quick decisions raises some interesting issues about how political parties elect their leaders. Canadian parties use various methods of allowing their members to have a say in electing members. The Liberal Party elect leaders at a convention that resembles old-fashioned US presidential conventions, where candidates are gradually knocked out until one gets support of the majority. The last convention in 2006 had about 2600 delegates voting at the convention. The NDP, BQ and the Conservatives all use various processes that give all members a vote. The NDP gives 75% of votes to members of the party, and 25% of votes to members of affiliated organisations, which are mainly labour unions. Over 58,000 votes were cast at the last leadership election in 2003. The Conservatives use a weighted system that gives 100 points to each of 308 ridings. The ridings are distributed proportionally according to how the members living in that riding voted. The BQ appears to use a simple “one vote one value” system, and the last leadership election saw about 48,000 members vote. Most Canadian provincial parties also seem to have shifted towards a “one vote one value” system as well. UK political parties likewise use various systems that put the ultimate say largely in the hands of grassroots members while giving some say to Members of Parliament. The British Labour Party uses a system which weights votes so that 1/3 of the vote is cast by members of the constituency parties, 1/3 by members of affiliated organisations (mainly labour unions) and 1/3 by members of Parliamentary Labour Party. In the only contested leadership election in 1994, Tony Blair won 57% of the vote, with a majority in all three parts of the electoral college. The British Conservative Party uses a process whereby candidates face voting by Members of Parliament until there are only two candidates remaining, and then the two proceed to a vote of all grassroots members. In the 2005 election, four candidates nominated. David Davis received the most votes in the first round, but Cameron took the clear lead after the lowest-polling candidate was eliminated. In the members’ vote, almost 200,000 votes were cast, and Cameron won clearly with 67% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats use a straight one-vote-one-value process, although each candidate must be nominated by at least 10% of the parliamentary party. Members vote with a preference ballot. Following the 2006 resignation of Charles Kennedy, 52,000 members voted, with Menzies Campbell winning 44% of the primary vote, being elected on preferences, beating Chris Huhne with 58% of the preference vote. Another leadership election in 2007 saw Nick Clegg beat Chris Huhne by a slim margin of 511 votes out of 41,000 cast. In contrast, Australia and New Zealand politics tends towards members of Parliament deciding leaders. The only exceptions I can find are the NZ Green Party and the Australian Democrats, although only two state Greens parties have official leaders (ACT and Tasmania), so Greens MPs sit in Parliaments in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia without any elected leader. The New Zealand Green Party has two co-leaders, and they are elected by delegates to the national conference of the party. Their constitution requires that one leader be male and the other female. The party’s original leaders, Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimmons, remained in place for the 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005 elections, and the only recent election took place in 2006 following the death of Rod Donald shortly after the 2005 election. The election was contested by MP Nandor Tanczos, former MP Mike Ward and party members Russel Norman and David Clendon. Due to the fact that four of the six Greens MPs were female, there was a high chance that the new male co-leader would not be an MP, and in the end Norman defeated Tanczos in a preference ballot. Norman became leader outside Parliament and was elected to Parliament to fill Tanczos’ seat when he resigned in mid-2008, and Norman was re-elected at the 2008 election. I was planning on going into what we should do in Australia as far as electing our leaders, but this has gotten too long, so: Tomorrow: what should we do in Australia? What would happen to our politics if grassroots members got to decide who became party leader?

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