Neil Matthews is Research Fellow in Queen’s University Belfast. He is currently working on the Northern Ireland Assembly Election Study 2016.
The cloak and dagger nature of the DUP’s latest episode of leadership change provides us an excuse to revisit Hugo Young’s wonderful description of how, prior to 1965, the British Conservative Party handled the tricky process of succession. Tory leaders were, Young observed, ‘removed and replaced by the informal alchemy of a charmed circle of elders’. By 5pm tomorrow, with the closing of nominations, we will know whether Peter Robinson has successfully – and in his own charmed way – lanced any prospect of the first leadership contest in the DUP’s history.
However, even before Nigel Dodd’s shock shredding of ‘the dream ticket’ and Robinson’s Twitter coronation of Arlene Foster, many curious observers were asking questions about the leadership selection method adopted by the DUP. How is the party’s leader selected? Who is granted a ‘voice’ in the process? And how democratic is it?
Those entitled to select the DUP leader are the parliamentary party group, loosely defined. This ‘electoral college’ includes the party’s MLAs, MPs and sole MEP. Prior to a rule change in 2003 this cadre was smaller still, with MLAs monopolising the franchise. All in all, accounting for the double-jobbing Gregory Campbell, the DUP selectorate is 46 strong. While the party’s executive will be required to ratify the parliamentarians’ favoured candidate, this stage in the process can be (dis)regarded as a symbolic rubber-stamping. The kingmakers are those with a seat in the DUP’s ‘party room’.
Set against the British Labour Party’s hyper-democratic leadership race in the autumn, and the SDLP’s recent (if not particularly thrilling) contest, the exclusive nature of the DUP’s process is stark. Certainly, from a comparative standpoint, the party is rather exceptional. In the largest study of leadership selection to date, only 6 of 71 parties placed selection rights solely in the hands of parliamentarians. The most popular form of selection worldwide is the delegate assembly (à la Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance), followed by a ‘One Member One Vote’ primary (as adopted by the UUP in 2007). Closer to home no major party in the UK or Ireland leaves selection entirely in the hands of its parliamentary party group.
Indeed, in the modern age, it can be easy to label the DUP’s process as ‘undemocratic’. The image of Arlene Foster being anointed in a meeting room in The Park Avenue Hotel undoubtedly sits rather uneasily with many peoples understanding of participatory democracy. However, and this is an important distinction, holding intra-party democracy to the same standards as we do system-level democracy is potentially ill-advised. Democracy, when it comes to how parties are structured internally, is highly complex. For instance, evidence suggests that the larger and wider a selectorate – in other words the more people granted decision-making rights – the less likely it is that the final result will be representative. This tension between process and outcome – between participation and representation – is often observed in the practice of candidate selection; where selectorates composed of local party members are most likely to return unrepresentative candidate slates. A smaller, more strategically-minded selectorate – such as a central party committee – is better-placed to produce a final ticket with more women, ethnic minorities and other under-represented groups.
So, in terms of the DUP, what, for you the reader, is more democratic? That members be granted a vote? Or that the exclusive nature of the process is likely to result in Northern Ireland’s first female premier and unionist party leader? If the choice of leader was left to the DUP membership – a body which has stridently conservative social attitudes – the odds of Arlene Foster being next DUP chief would likely radically lengthen. What is ‘democratic’, in this case, is therefore very much in the eye of the beholder.
This normative debate aside, what is the likelihood that the DUP will move to democratise its leadership selection process in future years? The evidence presents something of a mixed picture on this front. Among senior DUP figures there is a clear appreciation of the current system’s merits. They argue that MLAs, MPs and the MEP are better judges of character and leadership potential than the party rank-and-file, on account of working closely alongside any candidate on a regular basis. They also argue that selection by parliamentarians in a private forum makes it easier to manage the process, avoiding the broadcasting of party disunity to the watching electorate (and media).
And yet there are those in the upper echelons of the DUP who admit that the current process will become increasingly difficult to defend or justify in future years. They acknowledge that as the party has moved from the political fringes to occupy a position of power the membership – for decades content with fundraising and campaigning – is becoming (or will become) increasingly disgruntled with the ‘top-down’ organisational culture within the party.
Finally, the experience of parties with similar foundations to the DUP – built around and dominated by a central, totemic figure – also suggests that change to its leadership selection methods might be on the cards in the not too distant future. Canada’s Bloc Quebecois, New Zealand’s New Zealand First party, Italy’s Forza Italia and Ireland’s (now extinct) Progressive Democrats, all represent cases of parties outlasting their all-conquering founding fathers and widening the leadership franchise. One could easily make the case that as much as Ian Paisley founded the DUP, the modern DUP is Peter Robinson’s creation. And as memories of Paisley and Robinson diminish (including the internal culture they helped cultivate) the more likely that the party will widen selection beyond just the (mainly) men in grey suits.