Partisan Paradoxes: More Open Leadership Contests Do Not Necessarily Make For Better General Elections

The politics of leadership selection are becoming increasingly important in American and British politics. In Britain the Labour party will see a leadership contest after Angela Eagle and Owen Smith submitted challenges to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. These challenges took place after Corbyn lost a confidence vote amongst Labour MPs 172-40. In the United States, Donald Trump has won the Presidential nomination by attacking much of the Republican establishment. It is tempting to see the success of populist movements, especially the one that elected Jeremy Corbyn, as indications the strength of democratic values within political parties. This misses the extent to which party leadership contests are decided by a small and unrepresentative electorate. Paradoxically, placing constraints on the influence of leadership contest electorates (through the use of super-delegates or by requiring a certain number of MPs approve of leadership candidates) can lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the views of the general electorate.

The extent to which leadership contests reflect the views of the broader public is often over-stated. Leadership contests are usually low turnout affairs, and as a result, even large victories in leadership contests can be won with small proportions of the population. Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest was won with just 251 417 votes. This was 60% of the voters who voted in the contest, but nowhere near the more than 9 million votes that left Labour as the official opposition in the 2015 election. Even in the United States, where primaries lead to high levels of participation in leadership contests, Trump won just 14 million votes. This pales in comparison to the nearly 61 million votes that Mitt Romney needed to get just 47% of the vote in the 2012 Presidential election. What looks like a large populist movement in a leadership contest can often be a quite small when it is compared with size of the electorate for general elections. It is a mistake to assume that a leadership candidate who rides a wave of populist support to a leadership convention victory necessarily has large amounts of support amongst the broader population.

One could argue that leadership contest provide parties with an indication of which leader is most popular with the broader electorate. The problem with this argument is that voters in a leadership contest are not representative of the broader electorate. Voters in leadership contests are more partisan, and closer to the extremes of political spectrum than most other voters. Individuals who are unsure about which party they will support in general elections, or who hold moderate political views that lead them to switch their vote between parties, tend not to vote in leadership contests. Additionally, voters who do not hold strong views about politics, and are thus not likely to have strong ideological positions, tend not to participate in leadership contests. To the extent that outsider candidates such as Corbyn or Trump draw new voters to their parties, they tend to be smaller groups of voters from the political extremes. The new Labour members that have joined the party to support Corbyn tend to be voters who are to the left of Labour. The voters that Trump has added to the Republican party tend to have positions on immigration that are more extreme than the Republican’s past positions. These groups of voters look like they represent larger movements than they do, because the number of people voting in leadership contests is much smaller than the number of people that vote in general elections. A populist movement that wins a leadership contest is not necessarily representative of the general electorate.

The nomination of extreme candidates can hurt the quality of a country’s democracy. When parties nominate extreme candidates they significantly constrain the choices of general election voters. The choice of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee leaves moderate Republicans without a Presidential candidate that reflects their views. The same is true of moderate Labour voters, who may have difficulty supporting a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour party. The danger of allowing too much populism in leadership contests is that it creates general elections where moderate voters have to choose between candidates selected by much smaller and more ideological extreme factions within the major parties. When this is the case, large numbers of voters in the general electorate can be left without candidates that represent their views.

There are a number of ways that parties can guard against the nomination of candidates who would unpalatable in a general election. In the United States the Democratic party includes super-delegates in its convention, who can push back against Democratic primary voters that try to nominate a candidate that is unpopular with the broader electorate. In the British Conservative party only the leadership candidates who finish first and second in a vote of Conservative MPs are allowed to try to win the votes of the broader party membership. In the British Labour party MPs tried to reassert their influence over leadership by voting overwhelmingly to express no-confidence in Corbyn’s leadership. These mechanisms allow for party members to influence leadership selection, but balance that influence with MPs and other party members’ views.

These constraints on leadership elections are often derided as undemocratic, but they can help to ensure that leadership races produces leaders that reflect the interests of an electorate that extends beyond parties’ members. MPs, congress people, and other super-delegates almost always have a strong interest in their party being successful in general elections. MPs and congresspeople will often do better in general elections if their leader is popular and worse if she is not. Party elites have strong incentives to push for selection of leaders that have a broad appeal within the general electorate. These leaders, while they may not always be as representative of members of the party, are often more representative of the views of general electorate. The party elites that are pushing back against the populist movements that have led to the selection of Trump or Corbyn as party leaders are often doing so in the hope of replacing them with leaders that hold views that are more palatable to the general elected, even if they are not preferred by a majority of party members.

More democratic leadership selection processes do not necessarily lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the public. Because leadership contests have voters than tend to be more partisan and more ideologically extreme than the rest of the public, they can lead to the selection of leaders that large portions of the public find unpalatable. When parties elect extreme leaders, they can make it difficult for moderates in the electorate to find general election candidates that represent their views. Allowing parties to place some constraints on the ability of party members to elect leaders can be important to ensuring that parties’ leaders are capable of effectively representing a much broader general electorate.


Why Stay? The Case Against Separatism Depends on Mutually Beneficial Institution not on Common National Identity

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has led to renewed efforts among Scottish nationalists to gain independence from the UK. Less than two years after Scotland’s first referendum on independence failed, the vote for Brexit has led Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to announce that a second independence referendum is now under consideration. There is also substantial support in Scotland for both another referendum and for independence. The resurgence of Scottish nationalism has important lessons for federalists in Canada and unionists in the United Kingdom. In both countries national unity is based not on a common sense of national identity but on mutually beneficial political and economic institutions. When those institutions are undermined, the cases to keep Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the UK are as well.

Federalist and unionist appeals to a common identity are unlikely to be successful because there is not a strong common identity that links Quebecers with Canada or Scots with the UK.  In a 2014 poll of Quebec youth (one of the age groups least likely to support separatism) CROP found that only 28% identified as Canadian first.  In Scotland the levels of identification with Britain are also low. The research centre What Scotland Thinks finds that Scottish identification with Britain has consistently been below 25% over the past 15 years. If Quebecers are forced to choose between Canada and Quebec most are going to choose Quebec and if Scots are forced to choose between Scotland and the UK most are going to choose Scotland.

Canadian federalists and Scottish Unionists, both inside Quebec and Scotland and outside of them, need to come to grips with this reality. Successful campaigns to keep Canada and the United Kingdom together cannot be based on a sense of common national identity. Rallies, like the Unity Rally held in Montreal during the 1995 referendum are unlikely to make an impact on voters considering a vote for separation because they appeal to a patriotism that those voters do not share. The more federalists and unionists look for a common national identity as a basis for arguments against separatism the more they are going to expose divisions between Quebecers and Canadians and Scots and Brits.

The most successful arguments against separatism are arguments that separatism is likely to cause significant economic harm to Quebec and Scotland, and that make claims that federal arrangements (or quasi-federal arrangement in the case of the UK) can allow governments in Quebec and Scotland the autonomy to maintain their own identities. Both Canada and the United Kingdom transfer substantial amounts of money to Quebec and Scotland. This occurs both in the form of national programs that benefit Quebecers and Scots as well as direct cash transfers to the governments of both regions. In both Quebec and Scotland fear over what would happen economically should the region choose to become independent served as a powerful argument against separatism. Arguments that federal institutions and recognition give regional (in Canada provincial) governments the power necessary to protect Quebecois or Scottish identity can further strengthen the claims of opponents of separatism. Canadians and Brits can seriously undermine the case for separatism if they can demonstrate the cultural protections separatists often seek can been gained without separation. Opponents of separatism must be careful not to undermine these cases against separatism if they wish to keep their countries together.

In voting to leave the European Union, Britain did exactly this. In addition to benefiting from being part of the UK, Scots also benefit immensely from being part of the EU. Scotland receives significant transfers from the EU and many in Scotland value the customs union that they have with the rest of Europe. This is why Scotland overwhelming to stay in the European Union. It is also not clear that what Britain offers Scotland is worth more than what the EU offers. In the event of a Brexit it is difficult to see why Scots would vote to remain in the UK. If Brexit makes Scotland worse off, and if there is little in the way of a common identity binding Scots to the UK, the incentives for Scots to vote against independence will end up becoming quite weak.

Multiple referendums of separation in Quebec highlight the fact that Quebec’s presence in Canada cannot be taken for granted. Arguments against Quebec separatism rely on a delicate balance of appeals to mutual economic interests and to a federal arrangements that allow the government of Quebec to maintain control of many of the province’s cultural institutions. Weakening the extent to which Quebec benefits from being part of the country, by reducing transfer payments for example, can undermine the ties that keep Quebec in Canada. Similarly failing to recognize Quebec as a distinct society or limiting the extent to which Quebec’s provincial government can work to protect the French language for Quebecers can weaken the case against separatism. The best way to keep Quebec in Canada is to demonstrate that Quebecers can gain the advantages of economic union with Canada while maintaining their own unique identity. Canadian federalists should see the case of Brexit and Scotland as a warning. Undermining the economic and political arrangements that create incentives for Quebec to remain in Canada will seriously threaten national unity in a way that no appeals to patriotism can fix.

Neither Canada nor the United Kingdom is a nation-state nor are they American style melting pots. There is no common identity that can hold Canada and the United Kingdom together. For a large portion of Quebecers and Scots, Canada and the United Kingdom are mutually beneficial political and economic arrangements. This is not a bad thing. Appeals to mutual interest and common political institutions allow Canada and the United Kingdom to contain remarkable levels of diversity. Recognition and respect for differences can allow Quebec and the rest of Canada and Brits and Scots to both benefit from sharing the same country. This, however, requires that Canadians and Brits do not make decisions that undermine the interests of Quebecers and Scots. By voting to leave the EU, many Brits have taken the UK out of an Union that is highly important to Scots, hurt Scots’ economic interests, and increased Scots’ incentives to leave the UK.