I’ve been paying attention recently to Fianna Fail’s decision to use One Member One Vote (OMOV) to select candidates, as opposed to the old cumann delegate system where a small number of people decided the candidate. The system got its most vigorous run out recently in the contest to select Fianna Fail’s candidate for the Dublin European Parliament constituency between GLEN activist Tiernan Brady, former two term senator Geraldine Feeney, and Dublin City Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick.
A lot of FF people have spoken to me about the experience. Working from an electoral register of approximately 1400 voters (there are suggestions that there was more than one version of the register doing the rounds) the result ended up as Fitzpatrick 362 votes, Brady 208, and Feeney 140, with Fitzpatrick winning by six votes on the first count.
Did OMOV work? There are certainly complaints about busloads of voters being shipped in on the day, including one story told me of an elderly voter who obviously thought he was voting in the general election. But it is also recognised that the contest was much more vigorous than the old convention, the result much tighter, and also that the party members enjoyed the process. A number of local election candidates (and this is not unique to Fianna Fail) expressed irritation at the fact that they have to beg convention votes off people whom they will never expect to see again on the campaign trail.
Fianna Fail HQs got very mixed reviews on the process. One member suggested that the party leadership had not really given much thought when introducing OMOV and seemed to have panicked when it dawned on them that they could not control the convention, delaying releasing the register to candidates under spurious Data Protection reasons (as if party members would be shocked that their details would be used for canvassing their votes!). A constant theme mentioned to me by members across the board was the concept of “The Headquarters Candidate” amidst rumours of intense canvassing and leaflets being printed for a leadership favourite.
The campaign itself, especially candidates speaking at CDCs (constituency organisations) were apparently well received, although a number of members expressed surprise at the widespread desire of members to discuss the reform of the party. European issues were not prominent in the process, other than when raised by the candidates themselves, and even then they failed to take off.
If there was one thing that struck me it was that the party seemed very nervous about the process “getting out of control”, in terms of open debate and discussion. The city-wide hustings debate, for example, was very controlled with little opportunity for awkward questions from members, and a level of control from party officials which I found surprisingly tolerated by ordinary members, who seemed more likely to bitch about it in the bar afterwards than complain at the time.
The other observation, witnessed by me personally at the convention but also mentioned to me by others was the skewed age profile of the party members. College age members, and retired/elderly members were very prominent, with middle aged members quite noticeable by their absence.
On balance, I’m left with the impression, as an outsider, that the experience has been flawed but welcomed, with party HQs criticised for almost making it hard for the candidates to communicate with members. Why didn’t the party offer to send out a communication from each candidate with its notification of the convention, for example?
In short, OMOV is a transfer of power from the leadership to the members. It’s not perfect, but this is becoming the norm in most modern political parties, and Fianna Fail is no different. As ever, the battle between the desire for internal democracy and the fact that party memberships are increasingly divergent from party voters will continue to provide challenges to all parties.