Thinking the unthinkable

Imagine the following scenario.

Labour (or the Conservatives) lose the general election.

Gordon Brown (or David Cameron) resigns as party leader.

With much of the rest of their frontbench team also discredited, the party elects a non-MP – the (ex) Mayor of London – as its leader.


A sitting MP then resigns so the new party leader can stand in a by-election for Parliament.

With me so far?

Now imagine that in the by-election the other main parties do not put up candidates but rather give the new party leader a free pass into Parliament.

Pretty unthinkable, isn’t it?

Yet curiously that’s just what political tradition in Canada dictates. Not only is it common enough for new party leaders to come from outside the existing ranks of MPs for their to be a tradition of how to treat them, but it is also common for the main parties to give new leaders a free pass to Parliament.

If you look through the electoral and Parliamentary rules, Canada is in many ways very similar to the UK. Both are Parliamentary democracies for a start. Yet whatever the rules and structures say, political culture makes – in this respect – for a massively different system. What is common in one country is unthinkable in another.

Is there any lesson in all this? Perhaps. When talking about Parliamentary reform, we often concentrated overwhelmingly on the details of what the rules say. But that isn’t the only thing which shapes how the system works.

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