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The four leadership elections and Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy

Katy Ivey

13th September 2016

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Michel argued that all organisations, regardless of how democratic they intend to be, will inevitably be controlled by the few. One of the many ways in which 2016 has been remarkable is that four political parties are selecting their leaders, and Michel’s law seems to be holding true.

The Greens elected the joint ticket of Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas. One way in which the process is controlled by the party is that potential candidates have to have been members of the Green Party for three years and have the signatures of at least twenty members to be considered as a candidate. The Green Party is perhaps the most democratic of British political parties in this manner.

The most obvious successor to Nigel Farage as Ukip leader, Suzanne Evans, was suspended from the party in March 2016 for her comments about Farage. Steven Woolfe was excluded from the race for submitting his documentation 17 minutes after the deadline. Ukip’s NEC has kept tight control over the race.

The Conservative Party’s leadership election process has always been oligarchic – MPs whittle down the options to two before their members can vote. Conservative members were denied their vote between Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May as Leadsom dropped out of the race days after securing the nomination.

The Labour leadership election has perhaps been the most eventful so far. Ed Miliband hoped to resurrect the party as a mass movement, and so wanted to involve non-members in the leadership election. In 2016, supporters of the party could pay £25 to vote in the contest. It was alleged that this amount was set by the Labour NEC in an attempt to deter Corbyn supporters from seeking a vote. The Parliamentary Labour Party also sought to limit the choice of Labour members as Angela Eagle, despite having enough support to run, chose to withdraw to avoid splitting the anti-Corbyn vote.

All four of these leadership races have been controlled by party elites to at least some degree. Whether this control is effective or desirable is a far greater question.


Katy Ivey

Katy has been teaching Politics for 12 years and is an experienced examiner.

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