Britain: The strange way that only one and a half million people are choosing the new prime minister

7 hours ago

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves goodbye after leaving Britain’s top post.

When Boris Johnson steps down as Britain’s prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, there will be no general vote to elect his replacement.

Instead, about 1,60,000 members of his own political party will elect his successor.

So the question arises, where 40 lakh 70 thousand voters were registered in the last general election, how can such a small number of people elect a leader of the country?

The answer lies in Britain’s unique political system. Which means, this time only those who are contributing members of the Conservative Party will vote in the election of the new Prime Minister.

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image source, Carl Court

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British Parliament Building. Both Houses of Parliament function from here.

But this is not the first time. Sometimes even fewer people chose a new leader.

Why only one and a half million people vote?

In Britain, a general election is not held when a prime minister resigns during his term. Instead, members of the ruling party simply choose a new leader.

When current Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation, the next step for Conservative Party MPs and party members was to choose his successor.

Current Foreign Minister Liz Truss and former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak are in the running to become Britain's next Prime Minister.

image source, Getty Images

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Current Foreign Minister Liz Truss and former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak are in the running to become Britain’s next Prime Minister.

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In the first round of this selection process, only Conservative Party MPs in Parliament vote. After several rounds of voting, two candidates emerged victorious: in this case current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Finance Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.

How is the Conservative leader elected?

Currently, ordinary members of the Conservative Party take part in a ballot to determine the winning candidate.

But this approximately 160,000 members of the Tory party is only 0.3% of the total number of voters in Britain.

A session of the House of Commons (file photo).

image source, PA Media

Image caption,

A session of the House of Commons (file photo).

There have been many complaints in the past about how fair this process is, but it is fairly common practice for Britain’s new prime minister to be chosen solely by his own political party and its associated supporters.

Over the past half century, almost half of the country’s leaders have been elected by their political parties, not by popular vote in national elections.

This is partly because, in the British political system, the head of government is at risk of being removed by his own party if his popularity declines between two general elections. This is the complete opposite of the presidential system in the United States

Older and white

Members present at the Conservative Party conference. Most of them are elderly and white.

image source, AFP

Image caption,

Members present at the Conservative Party conference. Most of them are elderly and white.

But the membership of political parties does not represent the total electorate of the country as a whole.

Research shows that members of the Conservative Party, like members of the other major political parties, are slightly older, slightly more middle-class and slightly more white than the rest of the country’s population.

“The people choosing our next prime minister are not at all representative of the general electorate as a whole,” says Professor Tim Bell, head of the Party Members Project at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex.

A new Prime Minister will come. So Boris Johnson's furniture is being removed from Number 10 Downing Street.

image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

A new Prime Minister will come. So Boris Johnson’s furniture is being removed from Number 10 Downing Street.

“Ethnically they are not at all diverse; most of them live in the south of England; there are significantly more men than women; they are generally a little more affluent, but perhaps not as old as some imagine (on average they are in their late 50s, though Four out of every 10 people are over sixty.), they are still relatively old.”

“In short, what political scientists call ‘the electorate’ is very different from the general electorate.”

According to Professor Bell’s research, the majority of members of most political parties in Britain are middle-class, but members of the Conservative Party are the most middle-class of them all.

Black and minority ethnic groups are relatively underrepresented in all major parties.

Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving Prime Minister in Britain's 100-year history. But he too had to step down due to pressure from within the party.
Image caption,

Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving Prime Minister in Britain’s 100-year history. But he too had to step down due to pressure from within the party.

According to a 2018 report by Professor Tim Bell’s team, 97% of Conservative members were ‘white British,’ while 96% of Labor and Liberal Democrats were white.

So now Britain’s next Prime Minister will be elected by a group of people who do not represent the population of the country as a whole. But this incident is not the first time. And such incidents may happen in the future as well.

Smaller to smaller

Surprisingly, the number of people who chose the Prime Minister through elections in the past was even lower.

Until 1998 for the Conservative Party and 1981 for the Labor Party, only MPs could choose a new leader. As a result, the number of voters came down to only a few hundred people. They represented a much smaller number of the people of Britain as a whole.

This election process was not even always a democratic affair. The Conservatives did not even hold an election among MPs to elect a new leader until 1965. A winner was assumed to ’emerge’ from a group of candidates.

The senior members of the party discussed among themselves who would be the most suitable leader and eventually one was chosen without any formal vote.

hate and love

One of the reasons behind British Prime Ministerial elections in a strange way is that British political parties remove their leaders from power only when they are unpopular.

Since the Conservatives became prime minister in 2010, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson have all been forced to resign under pressure from within the party. Big figures in British politics were not spared.

Two of the most electorally successful prime ministers of the past 100 years, Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party and Tony Blair of the Labor Party, who had been in power for more than a decade, resigned in the face of factional attacks.

But House of Commons MPs happily backstab their leaders in public, but they rightly praise them.

Boris Johnson’s last speech in Parliament was followed by a tirade-filled uproar on the one hand and a standing ovation on the other. (This is a rare occurrence in the House of Commons, where clapping is strongly discouraged).

Many of them, however, had bitterly contested his removal from office in the previous weeks and publicly criticized him as unfit to lead.

That is why the new successor must also remember that Mr. Like Johnson, their fortunes can be a roller coaster ride of love and hate.

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