Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Is it time to stop defending the indefensible? - The Chief Minister at the Electoral Commission

The 1948 Constitution crumbles

The question has to be asked. Exactly why was the Chief Minister giving evidence to the Electoral Commission out of Season just before the holidays? The especially arranged meeting, called on one day’s notice, without the Chief Minister having made a written submission, was all together rather peculiar.

One can only speculate, but perhaps all is not going well with the “well laid plans” of the Electoral Commission for a coup d’etat on States reform. The written submissions on the web site are displaying a marked unanimity that it is time for the Constables to go. Reform Jersey had a very successful meeting in the Town Hall and has taken the moral high ground with its emphasis on democratic concerns

It may also be that some of the members of the Commission are thinking a little too independently and perhaps even a little too democratically. Like Napoleon at Waterloo, sending in the Old Guard to save the day, the Chairman of the Commission had to call in the Chief Minister in order to discipline other members and set out the party line.


The Clothier Report of 2000 had justifiably condemned the 1948 constitutional arrangement as no longer fit for purpose in a democratic age. It also offered a viable political alternative. Reform without dramatic change a la mode anglaise.

Clothier proposed a simple and logical solution. The States would be reformed with the creation of one category of member, all elected on the same day and in large constituencies of equal population. Senators and Constables would go.

Ten years later and there has been little progress. Clothier was and remains anathema to entrenched vested interests, traditionalists and the forces of conservatism. The Chief Minister did allude to vested interest being a barrier to any form of change.

The forces of conservatism are preparing a last rearguard battle to secure their position in the hope of hanging on for another few decades. Time is running out as the crisis has arrived in Jersey and the public mood is growing impatient with intransigent attitudes.

Arrangements that delivered stability and continuity immediately after the Second World War, entrenching power in the hands of the new business elite fearful of popular discontent built up during the Occupation, are no longer tenable in an age of Human Rights. Hanging on to the old ways is no longer acceptable or viable.

What currently exists is illogical; the accretion of history, now unpruned and grown rank.

A second Chamber? – “knowledge, expertise and wisdom”
The Chief Minister, Senator Ian Gorst clearly had not thought through the mechanics of what he was there to propose. Clothier has a certain beauty because its proposals are simple and logical. What we heard from the Chief Minister were suggestions that on their own might be plausible, but taken together were contradictory and unworkable.

Defense of the status quo is hard when what is being defended is not properly analysed or comprehended. Many of the written submissions to the Commission suffer from the absence of any real grasp of the current system of government. Much of what is written is more a hankering for the past when there was no dissent or conflict and the economy was buoyant.

Senators in a Senate – elected or appointed?

One of the themes being pushed today was that there should be a second chamber. A bi-cameral system would solve in one fell swoop the problem of what to do with the Senators, if they cannot be abolished. The answer is to stick them in an upper house.

Putting the Constables in the upper house was touched upon, but not really embraced. The thought itself is bizarre given the impracticalities of country bumpkins scrutinizing complex financial legislation of which they knew nothing and cared little. Their primary function in the States is to push the button and vote the way that supports the government.

The Chief Minister then introduced a new theme to the debate on an upper house. Should these new Senators be elected or appointed? For conservatives the idea of appointment has an innate attraction. The practical problem is that who would appoint them? There was no answer to that issue and inevitable fears of political patronage. Furthermore, appointment would do away with the “all island mandate” which so many appear to favour. It’s not possible to elect Senators and appoint them at the same time.

A second chamber is by its very nature “aristocratic”, the very antithesis of democratic. To then propose that these Senators could be appointed speaks volumes about the undemocratic thinking behind the scheme. Senators are loved, we are told, because of their all island mandate. That is to say they are chosen by the electorate throughout the island and have as their legitimacy thousands of votes. So, what crazy idea is it to start appointing and removing the democratic aspect of an election?

The Chief Minister would not be drawn on the point of election or appointment; he left it open. Clearly this is what the Chairman of the Commission is thinking and explains why he went on holiday to Barbados, which has such a bi-cameral system. Quite why such coyness is not clear since the Chief Minister was there to express opinion. Indeed so much of what he said was with reservations, partly no doubt not to pre-empt the findings of the Electoral Commission, which as we all know are pretty much decided. Perhaps today’s appearance was to give benediction to the predictable outcome.

Second chambers are also notorious for generating conflict with the lower Assembly. One can well imagine further paralysis and delay in a States noted for its indecisiveness over contentious matters.

The end of Scrutiny

It was not entirely clear from the Chief Ministers evidence, but he seemed to imply that the new Senate would take over the role of the current Scrutiny. The new Senators would presumably play no role in the Executive, but this was not clear.

Deputies and Super Constituencies

Having put Senators in a Senate, the position of Deputies became clearer. Reduction in the size of the States could be achieved by reducing the number of Deputies and electing those that remain in new large constituencies that need not follow parish boundaries.

Reducing the number of Deputies is a mechanism for removing dissent or eliminating those elected in urban constituencies and expressing the interests of the popular classes in general. Basically it’s a way to get rid of what the right see as “the lefties”.

The idea of larger constituencies was designed to deal with the so called “democratic deficit” or the disparity in Senators being elected with thousands of votes, whilst Deputies can get elected with a few hundred votes, given low turnout at elections. Larger constituencies would end tiny parish constituencies and, presumably, give Deputies a greater legitimacy.

The logic of legitimacy from large number of votes was not extended by the Chief Minister to Constables in their parishes, nor to the fact that 8 out of 12 at the last election did not face a contested election - uncontested elections being a common phenomena in Constables elections.

Senators would be elected island wide or even appointed; fewer Deputies in new constituencies and Constables in their parishes. Clear but confusing and certainly not democratic or any real advance of what exists.

Independent boundary commission

Ed Sallis, one of the more democratically minded of the “lay” member on the Commission, bowled the Chief Minister a bit of a googely by asking if there should be an independent boundary commission to determine these new Deputy constituencies. Back came the answer “God, not if we can avoid it” said Gorst. Once again there was hesitancy  over a suggestion with democratic implications.

Needless to say there was no discussion of the over representation of the Country parishes, each with its own Constable.

Holy cows and Constables

The Chief Minister recognised that the position of Constable was what he described as “the most divisive office”. His own official position was made clear when he told us parishes are the very bed rock of Jersey society; the Constables a vital link between the parish system and central government. This is traditionalist ideological pap. Whether the Chief Minister really believes this stuff was ambiguous. It is certainly realpolitik. He is surrounded by so many traditionalists that there is no space for a democratic moderniser, not that he is one. However what he is defending was condemned long ago, just like Sark’s feudalism.

An Englishman rooted in Jersey soil

It is sad to see that the Chief Minister has no clear thoughts on reform of the States Assembly and electoral system. Without Executive support the type of reforms that are essential cannot be implemented. Instead the crisis will deepen.

There was no understanding that the electorate cannot structure the States and has no policy choice. “Is a single election day more about turnout?” mused the Chief Minister, oblivious to the crisis of legitimacy that a 60% voter abstention represents. Of course a single election day is already agreed for 2014, so how exactly can anyone dream of going back to the bad old ways of staggered elections?

The Chief Minister in his own mind understands the issues and contradiction. He alluded to Clothier having succinctly analysed the problem, but could not admit that its proposals are the only sensible solution. He is an Englishman rooted in Jersey soil and the local prejudices are hard to overcome. The elite do not want change. They cannot admit there is a problem. They will hang on to the bitter end and it is ordinary citizens of Jersey that will suffer in the meantime.

Party Line.

It will be interesting to see what the official media make of this morning’s events. They will be looking for the correct stear to communicate to the population. The JEP and CTV both sent journalists. Will they have been as confused and bemused as were citizen’s media and most of the public in the audience?


If the Chief Minister achieved anything yesterday it was to confirm that there will be no significant democratic breakthrough. The Electoral Commission will come up with a scheme that is basically Plan Bailhache; the one expected all along. Quite how this will be translated into a clear referendum for the public to give a clear answer is virtually impossible. Illogical and undemocratic schemes are inherently untenable.

The next task is to expose in the eyes of the public how unsatisfactory are the so called reforms being planned by the Electoral Commission and Chief Minister. The demand must remain for real democratic reforms to the States Assembly and electoral system. Clothier has set them out already.


  1. "The new Senators would presumably play no role in the Executive" - That is apparently not the case with Barbados and although I haven't studied other similar Commonwealth jurisdictions in detail, I would have thought it normal for upper house members to be included in the executive elsewhere too. Look at the House of Lords for one thing- there are government members sitting in that chamber, only not in the very highest positions of power. Therefore it is presumed that upper house members would also be eligible to become ministers- and if they are, as expected, appointed mostly on the recommendation of the Chief Minister, then I'm sure I don't have to explain to you the kind of corrupt mess that will result from allowing him not only to appoint any islander he wishes (including his plumber!) to a salaried position in the States Assembly on a very long mandate, but then to be able to nominate him for executive office, which I expect to be paid well above the level of ordinary backbenchers by the time these reforms become reality (although I hope none of it ever sees the light of day).

  2. “Senators would be elected island wide or even appointed” - You couldn't have an upper chamber being directly elected by the same method that the lower chamber is elected. The result would be two popular legislatures both competing against each other for popularity and ultimate control. On the other hand, I believe France elects its upper house indirectly, by an electoral college composed of members of the National Assembly and delegates from département and municipal councils, giving a bias to rural and centrist elements (it was his unsuccessful attempts to change this method of selection that led to De Gaulle's downfall in 1969). However, there is no Jersey equivalent to these local delegates other than the parish bigwigs who are, at best, elected unanimously by a half-empty room consisting of their friends and loyalists... and would you want THEM deciding on Senate membership as well as keeping their own Constables' seats? If we adopted the French system, we might end up with most appointments going to parish assembly loyalists being rewarded for a lifetime of political sycophancy with a States salary, which, if the term of office was nine years like in France, and given the advanced age of these people (how old is Peter Pearce now?), would effectively be a States salary for life. Rule out direct elections, rule out indirect elections and what are you left with? Appointments- and I’ve already hinted in my previous post how destructive to democracy that could be.

    1. Jerry G

      Thanks for those observations. All very pertinent and worrying. The new Senate will be a corrupt pit of patronage.

      Perhaps one of the democrats on the Electoral Commission will issue a dissenting report upholding democratic principles?

  3. Great post Nick.

    It was also noticeable that he didn't utter a single word on voting systems (nor did the panel ask him about them). The system of voting is as important as any other aspect of the system.

  4. If the Electoral Commission focuses on anything other than simplifying our political system for the benefit of the public, then it will have betrayed its duty to that same public.

  5. Nothing will change because you still cannot see you are a minority act. Equal some of the polls for ILM and SPB and then you may have a case but na, not this side of xmas.

    1. Why do we have 60% voter abstention? Why does every door sing the same song - nothing changes in Jersey; you can't change the system, it’s been like this since ever?

      The minority are the guys running the show.