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What Liz Truss Proved
Dismantling guardrails to cater to the grassroots is a dangerous experiment.
There was a certain grim fascination to watching the 45-day train crash that was the prime ministership of Liz Truss. Not six weeks ago, when the Queen died, we were constantly reminded that Sir Winston Churchill had been her first prime minister: we’re now left to ponder that Liz Truss was her last.
This seems to paint a picture of a Britain in secular decline. Yet the mistakes that destabilized Britain’s politics and set the stage for the Truss omnishambles are relatively recent—and no, I’m not talking about Brexit. I’m talking about the way Britain’s once mighty parliamentary parties have been weakened by reforms that aimed to make Britain more democratic, but turned it into a political basket case instead.
Until 1998, Conservative members of parliament (MPs) had the job of choosing their party leader. That leader would become head of government if the party could command a majority in the House of Commons. After 1998, however, the rules changed: henceforth Conservative MPs would “thin the herd” of leadership hopefuls through successive rounds of balloting, then leave the choice between the final two to the members.
What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, it turns out. Political scientists know that weakening party officials can introduce all kinds of dysfunction into a democracy. Britain’s recent history bears that out in great detail.
The first hint of trouble came from the opposition benches. The Labour Party moved decisively to let ordinary members choose their party leader in 2014. In 2015, the rank-and-file, which skews far to the left, overruled the party’s MPs and picked the hardliner Jeremy Corbyn to lead the party. Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader is now widely understood to have been a catastrophe. Constant Labour infighting left Britain without a credible opposition for five crucial years.
Seven years later, following the fall of Boris Johnson, it was the Conservative rank-and-file’s turn to overrule their MPs’ preferences by choosing a new ideologically rigid and fundamentally unserious leader. Only, as the party in power, the stakes were far higher: their choice would move directly into Downing Street.
Liz Truss’s leadership bid was exquisitely in tune with the 142,000 or so people who voted in the Conservative Party leadership vote. But they amount to about a third of one percent of the 47.6 million people registered to vote in Britain. Conservative members are older, whiter, wealthier and more right wing than Britain’s electorate. To win power, she convinced them she would pursue an aggressive tax cutting agenda that most of the public reject.
She won the leadership vote—and kept her promise. Policy blunders come in all shapes and sizes, but seldom does one make its way into people’s pocketbooks quite as immediately as Liz Truss’s tax cut plan. Markets panicked, sending borrowing costs jolting higher. Within days mortgage borrowers were getting notes informing them their monthly payments would rise, just as a cost of living crisis was making everything else more expensive too.
Was the danger of a Truss premiership unknowable ahead of time? Not at all: her colleagues knew it. Most Conservative MPs understood very well that trying to introduce massive tax-cuts amid a surge in inflation would be madness—both politically and economically. That’s why more of them voted for her moderate opponent for leadership, Rishi Sunak (who was today announced as her successor), than voted for her. It didn’t matter. Their judgment was overruled by the grassroots.
A prodigious body of literature in political science deals with the role of parties within democracy. A leading hypothesis appeared in Responsible Parties, Saving Democracy from Itself by Yale’s Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, published in 2018. In exhaustive detail, Rosenbluth and Shapiro chronicle how reforms that weaken parties in the name of grassroots involvement fail. Such reforms, they argue, “feed political dysfunction and produce policies that are self-defeating for most voters, even those who advocate the decentralizing reforms.” They end up leaving voters more dissatisfied with the political system, and less able to hold their leaders to account.
It’s a story I know well from growing up in Latin America, where many countries eviscerated their political parties and soon found themselves governed by clowns…or worse. When I was a kid in Venezuela in the 1980s, the two big centrist political parties ran everything: it just wasn’t possible to participate in politics meaningfully without the approval of party officials.
The system was bloated and corrupt. People increasingly resented it. A powerful groundswell of popular sentiment cried out for a more democratic Venezuela. In 1988, direct popular election of mayors and governors was introduced, taking away one of the most powerful patronage gifts available to party elites.
As Dorothy Kronick, a Venezuelanist at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, puts it: “The results were disastrous.” Gatekeeping institutions that once excluded fringe voices lost their grip, and populist challengers gained prominence. Within 10 years Hugo Chávez got himself elected after entirely bypassing the once all-powerful parties, which collapsed—along with Venezuela’s democracy.
At the far end of that process you can end up with a political system like Peru’s, “the classic case of democracy without parties in Latin America,” according to Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College. “Sometimes it works: competent leaders can emerge. But many times they end up with disasters.”
Why? Because reforms like party primaries and referendums strengthen the party rank-and-file at the expense of professional politicians who have a strong personal interest in choosing viable democratic leaders. In primaries, in particular, officials’ influence is sidelined in favor of party activists who are ideologically unlike the country as a whole, and who vote in irresponsible and extreme politicians. When party officials are weak or absent, we therefore lose a key safeguard useful in keeping the patently unfit safely away from high office. The effects may take some time to work their way through the system, but sooner or later they will.
The U.S. is an obvious example. American parties used to choose their leaders through an elaborate process of bargaining between professional party politicians known as a “nominating convention.” Reforms in the 1970s, however, drained power from party elites and reassigned it to primary voters.
Disaster didn’t strike at once. But in 2016, the primary system saddled the Republican Party with a leader everyone could see would be a disaster if elected. Professional politicians in the GOP were aghast at Trump’s rise, but they couldn’t stop it. Worse yet, the patently unfit insurgent actually did get elected, leading to an epochal catastrophe for America’s democracy and its international standing that is far from over. It turns out that removing the safety mechanisms that keep figures like Donald Trump out of office can prove disastrously counterproductive.
Britons are finding out quickly what many political scientists have concluded over several decades: reforms that disempower professional politicians in favor of the grassroots may sound good in theory, but in practice they lead to disaster with distressing regularity.
Undoing the damage will not be easy. Reforms that widen participation are awkward to reverse. The idea that returning from the rank-and-file to party elites will deepen democracy is just counterintuitive, even if it happens to be true.
Fortunately, Britain’s Conservative MPs have begun to grasp the problem. New rules put in place to replace Truss, demanding at least 100 signatures from MPs to launch a leadership bid, has re-empowered the parliamentary Conservative Party. It’s a first step in the right direction: already, the high threshold has prevented the obviously unfit Boris Johnson from returning to power and obviated the need for party members to vote... this time.
It will always be politically awkward for politicians to redirect power from the voters back to themselves. But if they want to strengthen democracy, it’s a step they need to take.
Francisco Toro is a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty.
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