Leasehold or Freehold? Leader-Eviction Rules in the British Conservative and Labour Parties

AuthorThomas Quinn
Published date01 December 2005
Date01 December 2005
Subject MatterOriginal Article
Leasehold or Freehold? Leader-Eviction
Rules in the British Conservative and
Labour Parties
Thomas Quinn
University of Essex
This paper examines how leader-eviction rules affect the security of tenure of party leaders in the
British Conservative and Labour parties. It sets out a framework for analysing and comparing evic-
tion rules based on the political risks and institutional costs incurred by challengers and selectors
alike in removing incumbents. Entering a contest entails mobilisation costs as challengers seek the
backing of allies. Political risks are increased for the incumbent’s rivals if they must stand directly
against the incumbent in a contest. In contrast, rules that separate incumbent eviction and replace-
ment enable rivals to freeride on the evicting efforts of other actors, significantly diminishing the
incumbent’s security of tenure. This paper looks at three systems: the Labour Party’s electoral
college, the Conservative Party’s parliamentary ballot system and the Tories’ new parliamentary
mass-membership hybrid. High nomination barriers and the necessity to challenge the incumbent
directly make Labour leaders secure. Eviction costs are lower in the two Conservative systems.
This paper also argues that a party’s eviction rules must be viewed in the context of its broader
internal distribution of power: as party leaders gain more power over decision-making, raising bar-
riers to challengers may simply encourage internal opponents to rebel or exit.
It is an old maxim of British politics that while the Conservatives always assassi-
nate their leaders, Labour never does. This aphorism is usually taken to imply a
cultural difference between the parties, with Labour members instinctively loyal
to their leaders, whereas the Tories ruthlessly evict failing incumbents. Such value
differences may exist, but if that is all there is to it, nothing of general applicabil-
ity can be learnt by analysing these parties. However, in line with recent develop-
ments in political science, this paper contends that ‘institutions matter’ (Shepsle,
1989; Tsebelis, 2002) and that the key to the aphorism lies very much within the
parties’ internal structures.
The principal focus is on the ease with which intra-party selectors can remove
incumbent leaders. A party has no option but to seek a new leader when its pre-
vious one resigns or dies. Challenging an incumbent is a matter of choice, and those
who do it or support it are indicating their dissatisfaction with the status quo. If
intra-party principals are to hold leaders to account, they need ways of removing
them. Eviction procedures are thus a fundamental aspect of the leader–follower
relationship (Laver, 1997, pp. 78–80). However, although there is a literature on
parties’ leader-selection rules, it devotes less attention to eviction than to other
issues, such as the identity of the selectorate.
Selection institutions make it easier or harder for intra-party actors to evict incum-
bents. They are not the only consideration when assessing a leader’s security of
POLITICAL STUDIES: 2005 VOL 53, 793–815
© Political Studies Association, 2005.
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
tenure: popular leaders will survive under liberal rules, whereas unpopular and
incompetent ones are rarely saved even by protective systems. Leaders’ standing
among the electorate at large and the political balance of forces within their own
party are paramount in deciding their fate. Nevertheless, eviction rules can be
crucial for incumbents whose predicaments are awkward but not necessarily ter-
minal. Leaders who wish to shore up their positions often seek to change the selec-
tion rules, making it more difficult to challenge incumbents.
Formal leadership challenges are infrequent in British parties: since 1945, there
have been three in the Labour Party and five in the Conservative Party.1More
often, leaders depart of their own volition, especially after election defeats,
although also because of poor health (and two Labour leaders died in post).
However, the frequency of challenges is not a reliable indicator of the impact of
eviction rules: under challenger-friendly rules, incumbents may change course on
policy to avert a challenge, but that does not necessarily imply security of tenure.
The more significant effect of rules is in the way they shape actors’ incentives.
This paper utilises an institutional-costs approach to examine the two main British
parties. That framework and the justification for using it are set out in the next
section. Although the comparison is intra-national, the conceptual framework is
applicable to parties elsewhere. However, there are two advantages in restricting
the study to British parties. First, all political-system variables (electoral system,
executive–legislative relations, etc.) can be held constant. Second, there are no
ambiguities over who counts as party leader, as there are in countries where par-
liamentary leaders vie with organisational leaders.2The following three sections
analyse Labour’s electoral college, the Conservatives’ parliamentary ballots and
their new hybrid system in terms of their protection for incumbents. Other effects
of selection systems, such as their enfranchisement of groups that are more likely
to support radical/moderate candidates, are left to one side. The concluding section
questions whether the trend towards tougher eviction rules is in the parties’ long-
term interests.
Costs and Benefits of Leadership Challenges
To facilitate the analysis of eviction rules, we need a model of decision-making for
would-be challengers. In contests for vacant posts, decision-making is straight-
forward: all serious candidates wish to stand for the post, unless they have arranged
deals with others to step aside. Otherwise, the contestants will not believe that
their candidacies could incur sanctions from other actors. In contrast, formally chal-
lenging an incumbent leader who wishes to remain in post is much riskier. Winning
the leadership will increase the challengers’ payoffs, both in terms of policy out-
comes and job status, but a failed leadership bid could seriously harm their inter-
ests. Defeated challengers who hold front-bench positions will often lose them, and
in some cases, it could spell the end of their political careers.
Let Bji be the benefit accruing to a potential candidate, j, under the leadership of
candidate i(who could be any member of a set of candidates that includes all chal-
lengers and the incumbent). Bji is the estimated present value of inter-temporal
utility from policy outcomes and patronage benefits. It is positively correlated with

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