Tuesday 25 October 2016

Perils of party members choosing their leader

Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30


The trouble with giving people the vote is that they don't always vote the "right way". Democracy is rarely neat. Labour TDs were determined that the members should not choose the next leader.

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Many senior politicians, across all parties, will tell you that it is important not to allow their activists have a huge say in framing the party's political direction. Just watch the choreography and stage management which goes into setting up the average political party conference. Keep the salt cellar close when you hear party principals talk about how their members chart the party's direction.

Too much "democracy" could be fatal to a major party's ability to woo voters and win power. The core argument is that the type of person who lives and dies for his or her party may not often be the best person to gauge the fickle public mood. Those party zealots just might want to foist their own doctrinaire views on people with a completely different take on the world.

It is a hard one to argue. How can an organisation at the heart of the democratic system baulk at deploying democracy in ordering its own affairs? But like many things relating to politics, the practicalities should always temper the high-minded principles.

The British Labour Party was in the forefront of choosing its leader on the basis of one-member/one-vote. They chose Jeremy Corbyn who, by many people's view, is unelectable. The bulk of the party's MPs are left battling with that grim reality. It is likely they would not have chosen Mr Corbyn.

The issue has immediate relevance in the wake of last week's extraordinary Irish Labour Party leadership stand-off. Despite Enda Kenny's insistence to the contrary, we are also very likely to see a leadership contest in Fine Gael before we are all much older.

Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin is riding high right now - but that party's leadership will also become an issue in due course. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have widened the franchise on the choice of leader but they still give members only a small say.

The Labour TDs and senators can equivocate all they like after last week's extraordinary leadership stand-off. The reality is that its six other TDs did not want Alan Kelly to go before the membership in a straight vote.

It recalls the dread of democracy again which was our departure point. Against that, the Labour TDs can argue that they stayed with the party's constitution as it is and that gave them a certain outcome.

Kelly would have had a rattling good chance of winning in a vote of the 4,000 members and many outside the party - including this writer - believed he appeared by far the better prospect for a battered party trying to rebuild in a crowded and noisy political space.

That said, it says a lot that Kelly could not get even one of his colleagues to back his candidature. There is a reasonable argument that, if even one of his colleagues could not back him, then he is not the ideal person for the job. Brendan Howlin and his colleagues doggedly held the space and the Wexford veteran won the leadership according to the rules.

Life will go on. For now at least, Kelly stays within the Labour fold, and may well lead the party in the future - assuming he works a little on learning some of life's lessons.

For a time at least, every utterance by Brendan Howlin will be weighed against his past five years in government.

His hardline statements yesterday about Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan fall into that category and smack of a belated conversion.

Labour were early adopters of the one-member/one-vote and it appeared to serve well so far. The many problems they have had not up to now, related to doubts about choice of leader.

It is interesting that when Joan Burton won the leadership under this system in July 2014, many of her colleagues privately pointed out that she would not have won had it been down to TDs and senators. So, Alan Kelly can point to that reality to support his case.

Fianna Fáil have made some limited strides towards empowering members - but they stop far short of full membership franchise. Under their new and so far unused system, TDs would account for 45pc of votes within their new electoral college.

Rank-and-file Fianna Fáil members would get 40pc of the vote. The remaining 15pc will be allocated to party senators, MEPs, councillors, and those sitting on the árd chomhairle, which has about 100 members.

Fine Gael is even more adrift from the one-member/one-vote system. Under their system TDs, senators and MEPs retain the main say in leader choice with 65pc of the overall vote. The Fine Gael parliamentary party must vote at the same time at an agreed venue. The party's councillors have 10pc of the vote and they must also convene to vote at the same time in the same place. It leaves the ordinary members, who have been in the party for at least two years, with a 25pc say.

Interestingly, to be a candidate one must be nominated by at least a tenth of the parliamentary party. It is all some distance from one-member/one-vote though it does give a modicum of input for the party's foot soldiers.

We may yet see some challenges to organisations, engaged in democratic politics, and in receipt of considerable taxpayer funding, being so reticent in giving a full say in choice of leader to their members. It would make for an intriguing legal case.

Meanwhile, as Labour's woes retreat from the stage, we are left to contemplate the future of Fine Gael's leadership.

Enda Kenny has been there since June 2002, just after Michael Noonan's electoral meltdown.

Kenny has shown resilience and tenacity over that time. The manner and circumstance of his recent return to Government Buildings for a second term was far from inspiring or edifying. But he got there and is minded to brave the obstacles ahead.

This day last week he reiterated his intention to serve a full term. He did not need to add the words "be it ever so short". But he also said he would not lead Fine Gael in the next election. Now, that leaves Fine Gael in leadership election mode.

Irish Independent

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