“Mob-minorities”, democracy and Parliament

The British have been learning a lot about the different sorts of votes and voting that go on in a democracy. The oddest thing that has happened is the emergence into power of a small number of political activists. Both Conservative and Labour political parties – are, just now, at the mercy of their quite peculiar members. So are the vast majority of voters and politicians.

[Since I wrote this note, Andrea Leadsom has dropped out of the Tory leadership contest, and so Theresa May yesterday enjoyed a coronation. But there remains the underlying modern phenomenon of a few party activists wielding – at certain moments – extraordinary power. 16 July 2016]

The nuts and bolts of this extraordinary situation are that a few hundred thousand members of our two main parties are presently able to trump the power (the agency and voice) of the hundreds of MPs who represent the parties in Parliament, put there by millions of voters.

So, in effect, the votes of millions of mild, not-very-political citizens are worth something like a tenth of those of activists.

I am being very casual when I say there are, say, 20-some million votes cast for the major two parties in a general election and, say, 200,000 votes in the leadership elections of major political parties.

Of course there are various ways of unpicking this “data”. One might say that lots of Labour voters would like to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in a general election. One might say that lots of Tories would like the chance to vote for Andrea Leadsom, likewise. So the whims or prejudices or wisdom of Labour and Conservative party activists may yet be confirmed by a much wider constituency or mandate.

But I am inclined to wonder whether the moves toward “democratisation” of power within parties, away from MPs and towards activists, is actually at all democratic, let alone suited to the country which years ago learned to eschew both aristocratic and mob-rule.

If I am right, to the claims of the not-very-populist business of representative democracy within Parliament can now be added the claim that political parties ought to learn how to insulate themselves from the mob – even their own committed mobsters, so to speak.


Christopher Bellew
Your point is well made. There are about 150,000 Conservative party members and 500,000 Labour Party members. However, allowing these grassroots members to vote is a huge step forward from the days when the Conservative party leader was chosen in the bar at White's and Labour by the Trade Unions. The system is far from perfect but I think the Conservatives have done it better. Put forward two candidates acceptable to the parliamentary party, who after all know the form of the runners, and let the membership decide. A cranky Tory can put forward an outsider but they would not make it onto the ballot paper. As we have seen the Labour grassroots can elect a leader abhorrent to Labour MPs. It is a philosophical question. Do you elect a leader who represents your ideals or one who is electable? It's obvious to anybody, left or right, that the latter is the only way forward. I think it is not a coincidence that now the Left are idealistic and the Right pragmatic. This was not the case in 1997. A final point; the British voter likes to give the other side their turn, so Labour will not be destroyed eternally.

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Publication date

10 July 2016