The difference between internal and external elections

Internal party elections and public democracy share some characteristics, they’re a battle between good and evil, they rely on the quality of the candidates as much as the politics of their program and they involve earnest enthusiasts attempting to snake charm the electorate. However there are specific differences with internal elections that might be interesting to explore.


Lack of parties within the party

The first difference is that, in the Green Party, there are no formal groups or factions that stand in internal elections. Party members have tended to reacted badly to “slates” and so while Labour may have “Grassroots” and “Progress” candidates for the National Executive, in the Greens it’s rare to see candidates so clearly labelled, which is probably both healthy and inconvenient if you just want to vote for the “greenest” or “most left-wing” candidate regardless of their personal qualities.



Secondly, flowing from that, you don’t actually know who is going to stand until the announcement is made. In the local elections, depending on where you live, you can be pretty sure that you’ll see a set of perhaps five parties that always stand. You may get the odd additional surprise, sometime they even win, but on the whole you know which parties will be standing even if you don’t know who the candidate will be.

With internal elections there’s no telling whether you’ll have one candidate, twenty candidates or possibly even none (although I doubt that will happen with leader this year). At the last leadership election we had no contest for leader and just a run-off for deputy. The time before it was the other way round with a plucky Ashley Gunstock nobly sacrificing himself so the first leadership election was not uncontested.

So while this makes for a less polarised or factional party (he said hopefully), it means that the political skirmishes are far more unpredictable. We simply don’t know at this stage whether there will be more than one “heavyweight” contender for leader nor how many outliers, if any, there’ll be.

While political questions are often played out in these national elections, they tend to be localised to specific positions. If the outcome of the leadership race looks like a certainty then it may be that the really juicy battle turns out to be for executive posts, like chair. But due to the way we don’t know exactly who is in the race until the deadline for nominations internal elections are so much more uncertain.



Without a real discussion around the candidates in the party, it’s not always that clear what the difference between candidates is. In the outside world we know the manifesto differences between the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour. They have different covers for a start. However, unless the candidates choose to try to turn their run into a referendum on a particular question, you don’t tend have proper clarity on the difference – and if you don’t actually know the people… well what kind of informed political choice are you actually making?

Clarity has been achieved in the past through endorsements. Many members will flip through the candidate booklet and look to see whether the candidate has big league backers who have put their name to any of the horses. I’m not sure whether in this particular election it would be a good idea for Caroline to back any candidate to be honest. It might be helpful, but it also may contradict somewhat her stated aim to allow fresh political leadership to develop.

There was certainly a minority last time who really disliked the fact that Caroline and Adrian Ramsay ran as an official slate. I was surprised but know for a fact it lost Adrian some votes to his opponent, Derek Wall, on a point of principle. A principle I don’t share incidentally. What is clear from this though is that an attempted coronation could back-fire and actually cost the endorsed candidate leader(s) some support. My gut tells me if there are heavy weights to choose from Caroline might decide to keep her council to herself.



The last difference I’d like to highlight is the way that party activists tend to turn out for the candidate wearing the right colour badge at external elections even when they don’t think much of them. In internal elections there is no such obligation. More than that, door-knocking and phone canvassing for internal elections is something that happens on such a minor level that it’s never come close to affecting the final outcome.

Often people tend to be unsure how to engage with the members, and often get it spectacularly wrong for the sake of simply getting noticed. As Boris Johnson has just shown, sometimes you can win an election by knowing when to shut the hell up.

Many in the party feel that the rules should be opened up to allow for much more vigorous campaigning. Others want to see campaigning banned altogether. For my money if campaigning is banned it weighs the election massively in favour of incumbents and high profile figures when we should be having a proper political discussion. Banning campaigning has tended towards forcing people to doing undercover campaigning or using posts to raise their own profile.

I think that’s a substandard debate, if debate it is,  and risks behaviour that verges on unethical. Winning an internal election is a dark art mainly because it’s in the shadows. Clearer, more open, campaigning would make things far more transparent and, more importantly, give the maximum number of members a truly informed say in the future direction of their party.

Leave a comment


  1. james?

     /  23/05/2012

    hi jim, i thought that adrian and caroline cross endorsing each other was wrong as they were standing as seperate candidates not as co-leaders as they were allowed under the constituition if they prefered to work with each other. i actually think internal factions standing candidates would be preferable to the celebrity activists endorsing different candidates. my recommendation to candidates would be that they stand for both leader and deputy leader as this will give the members the most flexibity and avoid freaky results from the gender balance rule. i also think people should nt take there eyes off the chair as that might actually turn out to be the more important contest for the partys direction.

  2. It’s an interesting idea to stand for two positions simultaneously (don’t know if the rules would allow it) as it would give people a choice over whether they thought someone was suitable for the top job or the the next top one.

    I wonder if it would undermine the candidacy though? Would it make the candidate look indecisive?

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