UK financial markets are currently in complete disarray. The British Pound has fallen to an all-time low against the US Dollar and is tumbling against other currencies as well. Yields on government gilts have risen sharply, which will raise borrowing costs for the UK Government, which is piling on debt to an unprecedented extent. Mortgage holders and other borrowers will suffer a severe increase in costs as the Central Bank raises interest rates to protect the Pound and to try to reduce inflation. This all adds a heavy financial burden to an already stressed economy, adding to the pain from the huge leap in energy prices with which households are struggling. Make no mistake, these policies will cause suffering and hardship—people will get sick (forced to choose between heating and eating), find an NHS they are unable to access, and will die as a result.
This latest blow, as with so many others (like Brexit) has been self-inflicted. The Conservative Party has been kicking own goals into their net with abandon for years and will surely face the wrath of the electorate by the end of 2024. Starting with Theresa May, continuing with Boris Johnson and now accelerating under Liz Truss we are witnessing an ideological lurch to the right. In some ways this is a pan-European trend, with the far-right recently entering the Governments in Sweden (for the first time ever) and in Italy (for the first time since Mussolini). However, my sense is that the resultant policies will be moderated in both these countries by their coalition partners and the dynamics of coalition, however our First Past the Post (FPTP) system in the UK, which causes large majorities even on small pluralities, grants the Tories astonishing power with their 70+ seat majority. But FPTP conveys power but does not necessarily result in an ideologically extreme programme—what brings this about?
Here we need to see the role of the leadership election system. The system allows Tory MPs to whittle down the list of aspirants to two, and then grants the party membership the final say over who becomes party leader—and Prime Minister in this case. However, Tory members tend to be rather more “Tory”, and ideologically committed to the cause, than Tory voters or the electorate in general. In July, YouGov reported that Britons overall preferred Sunak to Truss as Tory leader by 28% to 25%, and that among Conservative voters Truss led by 41% to 36%–which is in stark contrast to the 57% to 43% vote by Tory members in the recent leadership election. The nature of the selection process has a built in bias towards the keenest of Tories—the bluest of the blue.
This is not solely a problem in the Conservative Party. In the 2015 contest to select the Labour Party leader to succeed Ed Miliband, the party opted for a similarly extreme ideolog in choosing Jeremy Corbyn. He won the contest by securing roughly 60% of the vote of party members, a far higher percentage than the 19% won by Andy Burnham, the 17% secured by Yvette Cooper, or the roughly 5% for Liz Kendall. Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper would have proven more popular with the British electorate, I suspect, but the system was biased in favour of the candidate who was the reddest of the red. It is hard to judge the extent of the impact of those who became members just in order to choose Corbyn, but the system already was tilted towards the more extreme candidate. I think if Corbyn had not been proven to be so disastrous in the 2019 general election, perhaps the centrist Keir Starmer would not have emerged as the party’s leader thereafter.
The extremist bias in both parties leader selection systems, combined with the large majorities generally conveyed to the winning party under the FPTP system, means that there is a high likelihood of a successive series of leftward and rightward lurches. This cannot be good for a smooth functioning of democracy, or the economy which politicians are entrusted to manage.
Business people, who value stability and predictability also find decision-making in this environment particularly difficult. This may lead to a reluctance to invest, which undermines productivity and thereby hampers overall economic growth. The chaotic plans announced by Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, have further undermined this stability and are likely to reduce growth and productivity, precisely the opposite of what they have sought to accomplish. But to be fair, they are merely implementing the strategy promised to Tory members during the long leadership selection campaign—members knew what they were getting. Sunak offered a different vision, which was rejected by the membership, but I contend would have been far better for the country—or at least less immediately destructive. The issue is this system. It must be changed.
Interestingly both these party leadership selection systems have developed out of a desire to improve the democratic nature of these contests. For example, what preceded the “one man one vote” system adopted by the Labour Party before 2015 was a system which granted 1/3 of the votes to the parliamentary Labour Party, 1/3 of the votes to the labour unions and affiliated societies and 1/3 of the votes to the party members. Philosophically this was an attempt to make the process more democratic, but the results raise what in my opinion are more serious problems—the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It will require a brave party or leader to readjust the system in a way that takes power away from party members, especially where the members choose the current leader. However, such bravery is exactly what we need—not only as it concerns party leaders.
London, UK—28 September 2022
I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.