The process by which organizations produce a principal executive officer. In most countries political interest focuses on the means of selection adopted by parties for the identifiable party leader who is likely to become head of government either immediately or after an election.
Five common types of party leadership selection process may be discerned:1By a single individual. This occurs when individuals create parties as vehicles for their own political views, for example, the Reverend Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, or when the outgoing leader may help to avoid a divisive succession battle by being allowed to name the successor, as has occurred in the Japanese Liberal Democrat Party.2By a small elite party group, either by formal vote or apparent consensus. This procedure is common in parties which originated prior to mass democratic politics, are located in relatively centralized political systems and espouse elitist values. It was practised by the British Conservative Party before 1965.3By the party members of a legislature. This method is common to many parties in parliamentary systems, the view being taken that as a leader is primarily a leader of a parliamentary party he or she needs to enjoy its support. In Britain this method was used by the Labour Party until 1981, the Liberal Party until 1976, and the Conservative Party between 1965 and 1997.4By party conference/electoral college. Party members of the legislature are joined by party members outside the legislature, either as representatives or delegates of specific parts of the wider party in an electoral college to vote for the leader. The selection process may occur as part of the regular party annual conference, as with the British Labour Party in the 1980s, or at a special conference, for example, the American party presidential nomination conventions. A variant, especially in the United States and for nominations to local offices in the Labour Party, is selection by a caucus of party activists. Selection by party conference is appropriate for parties which are located in non‐parliamentary systems, such as that in the United States, or where parties are composed of specific parts other than the parliamentary party that demand a role in the selection process: for example the trade unions and constituency parties in the British Labour Party.5By ballot of the whole party membership. This is considered to be appropriate where parties are based totally on individual membership, where the parliamentary party has become diminished in importance relative to the extra‐parliamentary party and/or the party has been created since such direct methods of selection have gained credence. In Britain, the Liberals after 1976, followed by the Social Democrats and the Liberal Democrats, have all favoured selection by a full member ballot. The 1994 leadership election of the Labour Party made some move to this method by providing for full member ballots in all three parts of the electoral college: elected members, trade union Labour Party members, and ordinary party members. After disquiet about William Hague being elected as Conservative leader solely by MPs in 1997, in 1998 the Conservative Party also adopted a full member vote to decide their leader. In each party, however, candidates have to meet prior requirements before going before the membership. In the Liberal Democrats candidates need the support of 10 per cent of party MPs and 200 party members from 20 different local parties. In the Labour Party, candidates need the support of 12.5 per cent of party MPs. In 2007 only one candidate, Gordon Brown, passed this threshold and he was therefore elected unopposed. In the Conservative Party, candidates only need the support of two party MPs but if more than two stand the Party uses an eliminatory ballot procedure among MPs to whittle the field down to two candidates before deciding the winner on a full member ballot.Selection processes in the United States since the 1970s offer the best grounds for a possible sixth legitimate method of leadership selection. State primaries, the results of which may determine voting in presidential nomination conventions, are generally held on the basis of balloting only party members. In some cases, however, ‘open’ or ‘wide open primaries’ are held in which anyone, regardless of party affiliation, may vote. The principle of selection by popular vote is not followed systematically in any leadership selection process, but does offer the potential for further variation.