Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party across the water is an interesting example of the way in which apparently unrelated political changes can have unpredictable- but nevertheless quite rational results.
When in October 1964 Sir Alec Douglas Home was ( just ) defeated by Harold Wilson in the General Election, he remained leader of the Conservative Party until the following spring, when he was replaced by Ted Heath. The advantage of changing the leadership in this way was that the dust had settled on the defeat before the parliamentary Conservative Party had to choose a new leader.
More recently, the custom has been that the leader of a British political party that does badly in a general election resigns at once. In its turn this means that the electors have to make their choice when they are most upset about what has just happened. The results have not been notably successful. In several recent cases the parties concerned have obviously got it wrong- as they have in the case of Mr. Corbyn, whose polling numbers are already catastrophic.
Time was when the leader of the Conservative Party simply “emerged” from consultations in the establishment. As Ian Macleod pointed out in 1963 such arrangements were becoming increasingly objectionable, and one of Sir Alec’s gifts to his party was to change the process so that members of parliament elected their own leader. While the process of change has been gradual, the leaders of all three British Parties are now chosen in a democratic way. On balance this is good; but unquestionably it means that an extra- parliamentary factor has been introduced into a once closed parliamentary system.
In its self such widening of the electorate- which has been carried to very great lengths in the Labour Party- might have had little impact, were it not for Mr. Cameron’s introduction of fixed term parliaments in 2010. Traditionally the Prime Minister of Great Britain could choose, as the phrase had it, when he “went to the country.” This in turn meant that the Leader of the Opposition had to be a potential Prime Minister, since he might have to fight an election and assume office at any moment. This is no longer the case.
Consequently, when the electors who chose Mr. Corbyn were making up their minds, they must also have realised another internal party election could take place at any time. In other words, those who voted for Mr. Corbyn were aware that they were not necessarily choosing a potential prime minister. Instead they could use their vote as make a protest against the ( dreadful ) New Labour elite which has dominated their party since John Smith’s death, while remaining safe in the knowledge that Mr. Corbyn could be asked to walk the plank at any moment if he made too big a mess of it.
Obviously the result is bad news, very bad news, for all those who are serious about electing a new Labour government. More interestingly the whole bizarre episode goes to show that those who introduce political changes- such as fixed-term parliaments- must be ready for unexpected, if completely logical results. But then Burke could have told us that!