The Electoral Commission held its final consultation meeting with the public on its Interim Report in St Saviour Parish Hall yesterday evening. The event had a more democratic tone and there was none of the baying “Keep-the-Constables” crowd that so marred the meeting in Grouville the previous night.
There was a moment of mirth and even a smile from Senator Bailhache, the chair of the meeting, when John Mills made a quip about his visit to Barbados and what he might have discovered there. In patrician style, Mr Mills praised the Interim Report as “pretty good” and remarked that “instinct tells me its time for the Constable to go”. What to do with them remained an issue and he suggested they be treated like Bishops in the House of Lords.
There were those that spoke in favour of retaining the Constables and for most speakers that was the limit of their contribution. Their reaction to the rest of the report was muted. There were also vocal critics of Constables too, including one elderly lady, whose voice would be familiar to all from the BBC phone-in programmes (when they existed) who managed to get in a cry of “they vote en bloc too often”. Her suggestion as to what should be done with them was like the Dean, to leave them in the States allowing them to speak but not vote. They presumably then could be living mummies of a distant glorious past.
“No housing estates in Trinity”
Whereas the meeting in Trinity last week had threatened immediate secession were the parish to be joined in a super constituency, one lone Trinity resident in attendance last night said he had no objection to his parish being twinned with St Saviour, provided, and here was the sting in the tail, the Constable was retained.
However, not all St Saviour residents were quite so happy and in particular the indomitable Nellie Pirouet, the mother of Deputy Jeremy Macon, smelt a rat. She noted “In the richer districts, more Establishment people get elected” and that there were “no housing estates in Trinity”. Although not directly expressed as such, here was sentiment that recognised the deep social divide that existed between those living in the islands wealthiest Northern Country parish and the urban South. The new District 4 would be sure to see the higher turnout in Trinity swamping the numerically superior but essentially abstaining St Saviour, resulting in the election of “Establishment” Deputies.
Peripatetic Democrats or “Hardy perennials who travel from Parish Hall to Parish Hall”
Nellie had a point; who would be left to represent the interest of the poor and the not so rich in the urban areas? So when my turn came round finally to speak from the floor (relegated to the tail end by the Chairman), I repeated the point I had been making throughout these series of meetings that “Option B” of the Interim Report, proposing the retention of Constables in the States, would perpetuate the country/urban divide, leaving the urban areas and St Helier in particular grossly under represented. St Helier with 26,860 eligible voters would have 11 representatives (10 Deputies and 1 Constable), whilst District 5 containing four Country parishes and half the eligible voters (11,100) of St Helier would have 9 representatives (5 Deputies and 4 Constables). Thus Country votes would be worth double those of a resident in St Helier.
Number of eligible voters per States representative:
District 1 and 2 (St Helier) - 2441
District 3 (St C, G, St M) - 1751
District 4 (St S, T) - 1851
District 5 (St L, St J, St M, St O) - 1233
District 6 (St B, St P) - 1800
We know that only 30% of the eligible electorate votes. Turnout in Country Parishes is much higher, almost double in some cases, that of the urban districts. When one factors in the social question to the electoral geometry there is a grave social injustice being perpetrated.
Neither Senator Bailhache nor Constable Gallichan would accept my point. They argued that the new districts would elect deputies and quite independently each parish would elect a Constable to the States.
What better way to ensure the interest of those living in the urban areas remained subordinate than retaining the Constables and pretend there was no injustice resulting. Gerrymandering one wonders?
The representative of the poor Sheitel of Havre des Pas
Media coverage of the series of meetings has been partial. The orchestration of a pro-Constables lobby was to be expected. The JEP carried in its reports photographs of parish grandees and notables all calling for the retention of Constables. Even unknown individuals would be shown provided they were asking the right question. Almost instinctively the photographer knew which questioner was about to make the vital point and up went the camera.
There was no photographer last night to record the contribution from a bald headed, muscle bound and hoodie wearing man who raised the question about high voter abstention and the poor organisation of voter registration – too proletarian perhaps?. There was no photograph of me either, although I spoke at every meeting to carry the democratic message, but then when did a Pan ever listen to a sheitel Jew?
Has the penny dropped?
For those that have not quite grasped the point, the recent Roadshow was really a given opportunity for the Pro-Constable lobby to organise and then allow the media to selectively amplify the message, whilst systematically ignoring or sidelining the Reform camp and its critique.
The real issue for those among the political class will not be the rowdy crowd in Grouville, but certain ticklish issues concerning Human Rights, international standards of democracy and the ultimate opinion of the UK government. The lawyers amongst them understand that. Domestic opinion is irrelevant and can be managed given the high level of depoliticisation and ignorance about the way government actually works.
Elsewhere, it is fully recognised that in terms of formal structure the Channel Island governments are archaic relics and an embarrassment to democracy in Europe. It is also an issue for international investors concerned about the respectability of the jurisdictions in which they keep safe their wealth.
Given the UK ultimately has responsibility for good government in the island, will they accept a States Assembly that uses grossly unequal constituencies in terms of size and numbers and one that openly favours wealthy social groups, to elect representatives? Twelve Constables out of 42 representatives will be elected from constituencies that are unequal.
The answer is yes, provided it can be shown that the most peculiar and undemocratic aspects have popular support and legitimacy – hence the referendum. This is why the feudal Seigneur has survived as part of the structure of Sark’s modernised legislature. Four hundreds years of attachment to government is deemed sufficient for retention to be acceptable, albeit with much reduced formal powers.
It will be argued that the new super constituencies are the very model of an equal and modern structure for constituencies. Effectively there will be six mini Senators elections all hopefully discussing issues with an island wide flavour. The Senatorial elections tend to see the more capable elements of the political class elected and it is hoped this will be replicated in the six new Districts.
There will be no “riff raff” elected, persons with unkempt hair, individuals “who could never earn the same salary in the private sector” or “no hopers” – the stereotype bogeymen about which the political class loves to express disdain. Nor will there be candidates elected in small constituencies that are “ghettos” (read “inner St Helier”) or by large housing estates (read Les Quennevais in St Brelade or southern St Saviour).
Money will buy elections.
Large constituencies with 11,000 to 14,000 electors spread over a wide geographical area and variable terrain will require campaigns that are well organised and funded. Money will buy elections. Individual candidates without significant resources will struggle. Only those prepared to co-operate and stand a slate of candidates might stand a chance. Currently only the political class has those resources, organisation and money. Democratic forces by contrast are disorganised and divided.
The citadel of power
The referendum will be used to show that there is popular sentiment in favour of retention of Constables in spite of obvious and gross democratic anomalies. The political class needs them as loyal voters in the legislature for the policies of the Council of Ministers. Nine of twelve consistently vote with the executive. In a reduced Assembly of 42 that means certain political control and the marginalisation of dissent and opposition, however popular. Distance is placed between Executive and People. The walls grow higher and the moat deeper around the citadel of power.