No, 0.3% of UK Voters are not Choosing the Next PM
The NYT provides an incredibly bad take on parliamentary government.
As is too often the case with even the elite American press, the NYT has a pretty horrible take on the way the government, and specifically democratic accountability, works in a parliamentary system: The 0.3% of U.K. Voters Who Will Pick the Next Prime Minister .*
Gathered here were three dozen of the 160,000 or so party members who will choose the next Conservative leader and, therefore, prime minister, giving them unparalleled power to determine their country’s fate as it careens through the Brexit crisis.
This sliver of the population, just 0.3 percent of registered voters, is mostly white, aging and male. And it is poised to use its new clout — the party’s grass roots have never before picked a prime minister — to catapult Boris Johnson into Downing Street, potentially cleaving the world’s oldest and most successful political party as it sends Britain on the path to what could be a tumultuous Brexit.
Now, as the first paragraph quoted correctly notes, this process will select the next leader of the Conservative Party, and yes, the leader of the Conservatives will be the next PM.
But the headline of the piece is wrong in a really important way–this is not the selection of the PM. Further, the implication that the selection of the PM is in the hands of these few voters misses an essential aspect of parliamentary systems: the power to select the PM is in the hands of the party, or parties, that command a majority of seats. The PM requires their confidence. That the Conservative Party will have Johnson as its leader may well be an indictment on the Tories, but this is not some undemocratic process.
Specifically, the Tories won 318 of 650 seats in the Commons in 2017 which is 7 seats shy of 50%. Teresa May was able to form a minority government via a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) which 10 seats. Currently, the Conservatives have 312 seats and the DUP still 10 (which id shy of the needed 325 for a majority).
The Tory seats were won on 42.4% of the vote.
The democratic legitimacy for a PM Johnson comes from the fact that the party he will lead is the party that won the most votes and the most seats (and is able to secure enough support from a handful of other PMs to generate majority support in the House of Commons). This is a substantial amount of democratic legitimacy. It has nothing to do with how the Tories selected him as leader.
Indeed, while it certainly matters who the PM is (and Johnson is, in my estimation, likely to be a wreck, but that is beside the point). But, the entire process is one in which what actually matters most is the party or coalition that has the majority support in the House of Commons, support directly derived from the voters of the UK.
Now, if you want to criticize the UK system, I don’t think the way parties select their leaders is as key as the single seat district system with plurality winners (same as we use in the US). It creates representational distortions that some version of proportional representation would not.
For example: the Conservatives won 42.4% of the vote and won 48.9% of the seats while the second-place Labour Party won 40.0% of the vote, and only 40.3% of the seats. Or, worse, the Liberal Democrats who won 7.4% of the vote and won only 1.8% of the seats while the Scottish National Party won 3.0% of the vote and 5.4% of the seats.
At any rate, the next PM is being chosen by the House of Commons, and will be selected by the Conservatives, the party with the most seats and votes, in some kind of agreement with enough other members to generate at least an agreement to support a minority government.
The next PM is definitively not being selected by 0.3% of UK Voters.
Keep in mind, to, this process is just a final ratification of what was an internal party fight to being with.
To be clear: I understand that there is a process with limited participation that will endorse the next Tory leader. But that is not the same thing as choosing the PM. And focusing solely on that process misses the fundamental nature of the system under discussion.
*So I disagree with Doug Mataconis’ take, which I think it too influences by the NYT’s terrible job.