Who gets to make the most important political decisions? Is it everyone 18 and older, gathered at the ballot box at election time? Is it the representatives they elect, gathering in Parliament and voting on legislation? Or, before any of this occurs, is it the dues-paying members of those politicians' parties, gathered in a fluorescent-lit hotel ballroom and predetermining the identities and actions of those supposed representatives?
Party members are the most mysterious and unregulated force in politics, but they often have more political power than citizens or even elected parliamentarians do. Of course, in some countries – China, for example – party membership is literally everything; the only way to wield any influence is to join the party.
But party members, despite being fewer in number than ever before, have gained outsized and damaging influence in many more democratic places, including Canada. That undue influence of parties over government is the major motive behind Conservative MP Michael Chong's proposed Reform Act, which would shift the power to remove prime ministers and expel MPs from party executives to the caucus of MPs, who, after all, are elected.
As other commentators have noted, Mr. Chong should also propose that MPs, rather than party members, select the prime minister. As a response to the party-elite demagoguery of Stephen Harper's government, it seems a step in the right direction – but it misses the larger problem, which is not parties themselves, but their members, whose power remains excessive.
The decisive moment in politics often occurs when an elected leader is forced to choose between his party's membership and the larger interests of the country and voters. This week, we said farewell to Nelson Mandela, who, before becoming South African president in 1994, made the key decision to betray the core beliefs and manifesto declarations of most African National Congress members – central-planned economy, state-owned enterprises, retribution – and follow the interests of the country instead. As he learned early, and many leaders do too late, democracy begins where the influence of the party rank-and-file ends.
When you cast your ballot in a federal election, you are first and foremost voting for a party. You are probably interested in the identity and character of your local candidate, but your main concern is with the government (or opposition) of which this putative MP will become a part. It's a federal election, not a local one, and what's being decided is the government and opposition that will take shape in Ottawa. You want to know that your vote, and your would-be MP, will be part of a known commodity offered to the electorate by the party: a prime minister, cabinet and set of policies and principles that have some chance of becoming reality.
This is where the party membership and the electorate come into conflict. What if your MP turns out not to be an accepted, influential member of the party who will strive to do the things pledged in the national campaigns, but a rogue figure opposed to the party agenda and selected by a local riding association that's been hijacked by a faction or activist group? What if your MP feels beholden not to a nationally discussed governing program but to a party-conference manifesto you likely have never seen? What if the party members choose a leader against the interests of the elected MPs?
Much of this card-carrier influence dates back to the age of the mass-membership political party, which peaked in the mid-20th century: Most Europeans were members of the huge social democratic and Christian democratic parties, most Americans were registered Democrats or Republicans and a large proportion of Canadians (though not most) were members of federal political parties.
For decades, party membership has declined steeply in every Western country. Today, somewhere between 1 and 2 per cent of Canadians are members of political parties. That's a good thing: People would rather vote for influence than buy it with a membership card. Yet modern parties are more influential and better funded than ever – political scientists call them "cartel parties," because they forge deals with the electorate and the state, not with their own membership. Members no longer matter, and we need to update the system to reduce their influence.
Eliminating the influence of riding committees over MP selection would help. So would empowering MPs to select the prime minister. As would making the caucus, not the convention, the policy seat. Most of all, we need leaders who have the guts to go against their own parties.
Follow me on Twitter: @DougSaunders