The Liberal Democrats would be the party I would probably support if I lived in Britain. They’ve just completed a ballot of their members to decide a new Parliamentary Leader, after their previous leader resigned. They’ve had a little bit of leadership instability in recent years, but my interest is more in the mechanism they use to decide a leader. In this case, their new leader is Nick Clegg who beat Chris Huhne by the incredibly tight margin of 20 988 votes to 20 477. I suppose I really should point out that I mentioned Nick Clegg as a future party leader in this post back in January 2006.
When the Liberal Party in Australia decided its new leader after the recent election (in what seemed to me to be an incredibly rushed fashion), I noticed a couple of comments suggesting it would be worth them trying a different way of deciding the leader, by giving the members some sort of say in the decision.
The Australian Democrats have done this for thirty years, letting all party members have a vote in deciding parliamentary leadership positions. I think it is a system which has a lot going for it, even though it has been much mocked by Australian press gallery commentators over the years. Despite the mockery, it is interesting to note that all three major parties in the UK allow their membership significant input into determining the parliamentary leader of their party.
It does take a lot longer than just holding a meeting and having a vote, but the benefits are (a) it gives much greater value and meaning to being a party member (b) it gives the parliamentarians a much better idea of what their party members actually think and believe and (c) it requires the leadership contenders to have to outline in much more meaningful detail what they believe and where they plan to take the party.
I think the Liberal Party in Australia would have benefited from a public debate and discussion amongst its leadership contenders as to what their party stood for and where it should be going.
The Liberal Democrats conduct this process in a very open way – even more so than the Australian Democrats in some ways – including the release of full member voting figures, widespread use on websites for member debate and engagement with parliamentarians, and member meetings around the country.
As I’ve noted in the past, many of their MPs and party members have been heavy users of blogs, which has extended in recent times to networking sites like Facebook. (In what must have been a moment of prescience, I became Nick Clegg’s Facebook friend a couple of months ago.) This includes Liberal Democrat Voice, which is an unofficial website run by party members allowing open debate on pretty much anything. See this post, by Peter Black, a Liberal Democrat member of the Welsh Assembly, liveblogging the announcement of their leadership ballot as an example of something you’d never see in Australia from a major party MP.
In the USA, with their system of public primaries, candidates have to take their message direct to the entire public. In that sense, their system is much more democratic and does mitigate against lead candidates being able to campaign inside a media bubble without any meaningful public contact (as noted in this post). However, their system has some other horrendous features which in other key respects makes it barely able to be called a democracy – not least the total lack of independence of electoral officials, boundary determination and electoral rules, the requirement to raise obscene amounts of money, and the stone age first past the post voting system (something the UK still suffers from too).