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In Australia we vote for local members who are usually representatives of a political party, and the elected candidates then become Members of Parliament (MPs) who choose their party leader, usually by a private party vote, unless the leadership is not being contested. This makes sense to me as it is the MPs who make up the party team, so they should be happy with their leader.

In Europe and the UK (where the parliamentary model is almost the same as Australia's: the Westminster system), some parties have direct voting for the leader. I guess the thinking is that a leader who is popular with the public will be a good leader, but the MPs might think another member would make a better leader, or be unwilling to follow the publicly elected leader causing internal conflict.

Something I think is odd is that it is the MPs who decide who the candidates will be, so it doesn't seem as democratic as it could be (to the party members), since the MPs have almost chosen their own leader anyway. MPs can also cause a leadership spill by voting for a motion of no confidence in their leader, bypassing the wishes of the party members.

What are the perceived benefits of this direct voting model?

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The three largest UK parties have historically had different systems:

  • The Conservative party used informal polling among MPs, which resulted in a new leader "emerging". Later the Conservatives used formal polling of MPs.
  • The Labour party used an electoral college, with one-third each of the vote going to Labour MPs and MEPs, Labour Party members, and members of unions and socialist societies.
  • The Liberal, later Lib-Dem party used one-member-one-vote.

Recently all the parties have moved towards individual members voting. The reason is mostly "optics". Under the Conservative or Labour rules it would seem that the leader of the country was chosen in an opaque and undemocratic way. Being "democratic" in the internal party mechanism looks good when you are in a general election.

Before the two largest parties adopted forms of One-member-one-vote, both were attacked for being anti-democratic in their internal mechanisms and "if a party isn't internally democratic, how can you trust it to be democratic in government(?)"

Also, one-member-one-vote gives the membership an important role. This attracts members, who join so they can have a role in the selection of a party leader (and possibly a PM). These members then become foot soldiers in the general election or a source of ongoing funding.

  • By "optics" do you mean that it's mostly for appearances? – CJ Dennis Jul 22 '19 at 9:17
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    It is making the party appear democratic. I'm not suggesting that the various parties are actually anti-democratic. Rather, they are being seen to be democratic in their internal structures. – James K Jul 22 '19 at 13:36
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Several options, each with their problems:

  • Having MPs vote for the party leadership means that party members in low-polling areas are disenfranchised. If one believes in democratic principles, that is a bad thing.
  • In many countries the national leadership is elected in a multi-stage process. Local party chapters elect district delegates, district delegates elect state delegates, state delegates elect national delegates. That maintains a chain of democratic legitimacy, but the multi-step filter tends to select party functionaries at higher levels. It isn't just one party convention where they have to go and run, they have to do it time and again.
  • When the party members elect the leadership directly, that can have an effect of disuniting the party prior to the election, and also to elect candidates who are better at pleasing the party base than at winning a general election.
  • A direct election by the party base has a few more effects:
    • People might join the party so that they can vote. Most will be people who might have considered joining but never got off their couch. Now they are card-carrying, dues-paying members. Some may stay and help campaigning rather than get back to the sidelines.
    • Running a genuine 'party election' with several credible candidates produces news coverage.

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