Monday, 30 December 2013

Feminism, Class and the Politics of Child Care in Jersey

No one writes about the issue of women in Jersey. None of the "macho" Jersey bloggers would ever dream of mentioning feminism. The female members of the States of Jersey remain indifferent and mute on the subject. So why do women’s issues count for so little today?

Back in the 90's there were active campaigns around reproduction rights and the legalisation of abortion. There was even a magazine dedicated to women's issues called "Née". I was interviewed on the campaign alongside another young lawyer by the name of Christopher Lakeman and there I set out the arguments for a women's right to choose. I helped to found the group "Pro Choice".

A few days ago, as part of a Reform Jersey voter registration campaign, I knocked on the door of a single mother in central town and part of District 1 St Helier and she told me she was utterly bored looking after a toddler and wanted to return to work. She could not afford to do so because the cost of child care was so high. Social Security told her she was better off financially to remain on Income Support and not bother returning to work. 

Caroline the Nursey Nurse

Work is what Caroline wanted. She knew it was what integrated her into society. She missed her colleagues.  It is ironic that Caroline is a Nursery Nurse. Potential wages are so low that she cannot afford to the nursery care that would enable her to return to work as a Nursery Nurse. What a crazy economic system!

One answer might be a State and Parish child care scheme that would allow women to return to work. Why is it not in place? Why is it not top priority for politicians when it is the single most talked about obstacle for families regardless of their social background?

State and Parish subsidised child care would assist mothers, but it would also be a subsidy to employers who are paying wages too low for women to enter the work force. What women need are pay rises.

What Caroline needs is a job with decent pay that would enable her to bring up her child and the child care to enable her to achieve that. 

It is sometimes said that the middle class have children whilst the working class just “breed”. Such prejudice might well be found amongst those who despise single mothers. Yet the right to have children should be a Human Right, not one confined to those with the wealth to afford them. Why should the working class be denied the right to have children on the basis they cannot afford to keep them and should therefore not have them?

Advancing women

Recently a group of middle class Feminists organised a conference in the Grand Hotel around the theme of advancing women in society and politics. They would not call themselves Feminists, no doubt because such a term might, in polite society, be regarded as rather vulgar.

At the conference there was much talk about the “glass ceiling” that prevented women getting onto the Boards of companies and entering the States Assembly, where there are only a handful of women currently. What struck me was that there was no discussion of where was the “floor”? By that I mean the position of working class women, who suffer from low wages and part time work whilst being responsible for child care. There is a recognised 19% pay gap between men and women, but the issue for working class women is low pay.

What is to be done?

So what is to be done to improve the situation of working and non working women?

The issue of maternity rights would be a starter. This exists in the UK having been introduced by a Labour government in the 90’s yet remains to be implemented in Jersey by a government that lacks the will to deliver.

As mentioned, state and Parish organised child care facilities should be a popular policy for any politician seeking to address the needs of working families.

The field is wide open for discussion yet few take it seriously. Elections are only around the corner in 2014. Women must put themselves on the political agenda. By asserting themselves they will emancipate us all.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

HELP, THE BRITISH ARE COMING! - VOTE OPTION “B” OR ELSE – (well, only if you are a gullible fool)

Option B and the last chance saloon.

Option B in the Referendum was always official government policy but it was never spoken about in that way and commentators failed to enlightened the public of that fact. That it failed in the States, is a triumph to a combination of a vibrant Option A campaign and the vested interest of large numbers of Deputies frightened by the cull of seats to a House with only 42 members. The ruling group have been smarting ever since and have been intent on forcing it through against the will of the States.

Friday’s pre Christmas political pantomime, saw Senator Ozouf and Chief Minister Gorst playing hard cop and soft cop on BBC Radio Jersey. The latest blunt instrument to cajole reluctant States Members is the suggestion that unless States Members vote in January for Senator Ozouf’s gerrymander “Option B with two extra Fairies atop the St Helier Christmas Tree” (P93/2013), the British Government will be sending over a Royal Commission to do the job they won’t do.

Its all obvious huff and puff. The Senator is getting desperate at the prospect of seeking reelection in October 2014 with 8 seats available and the tail-enders likely to be mavericks. Whether he genuinely fears for his own personal reelection is less obvious. Clearly in certain quarters he is despised whilst in others idolised as “a bastard, but our bastard”.

In September, Senator Ozouf pulled P93/2013 from front of the queue in the major debate on electoral reform, knowing that otherwise it would have been rejected immediately. Cleverly, but rather unsubtly, he held it over to the time of the Budget and has postponed it again until January 2014. He is presenting it to Members as the “last chance saloon”. What’s new is that he is threatening Members with a Royal Commission appointed from the UK to deliver reform if they don’t vote through his plans. 

The Channel Islands Constitutional Task Force

Of course the appointment of a Royal Commission from the UK would be a humiliating defeat for island autonomy and recognition that the government of the island was completely incapable of managing its internal constitutional affairs. It’s true they can’t, but the Jersey government would never willingly inflict such humiliation on itself. Senator Ozouf knows that the petty Jersey nationalists that sit in the States Assembly would be horrified by the prospect of the Brits arriving with a Constitutional Task Force. 

British intervention, together with a lot of lobbying by the Barclay brothers, was needed to bring about democratic reform in Sark and overcome an intransigent rear guard action by old elites. The “Sark model” is the type of acceptable reform to achieve respectability in the eyes of the UK. One can only imagine the cajoling and tutting going on in the corridors of Whitehall whenever a hapless Jersey or Guernsey official turns up. Behind all this lies concern for the longer terms economic and social stability of all the former British colonial possessions. The government of an island where the populace is totally disaffected and show it through a 60% voter abstention, raises questions about stability in the event of a serious crisis.

“The international democratic principle (sic) that… everybody who votes should have the same number of votes”

Senator Ozouf’s arguments lacked any intellectual credibility, but the BBC interviewer was not there to point out obvious flaws, rather to allow the threats to be aired publicly and endorse the plan. All the old chestnuts were there, especially the one about Members ignoring the will of the people by failing to implement Option B following its “triumph” and “popular endorsement” in the April referendum (Yes, all 8% of the island!).

Firstly, were any Royal Commission appointed it would inevitably chuck out Senator Ozouf’s beloved Constables. How could it be otherwise if creating a fair and democratic system? For certain “Option B with tweaks” would be the first scheme in the dustbin of history.

The second confusion was a belief that the fundamental flaw of the present system is that not everyone gets the same number of votes across the island. That’s not the issue. It’s that the constituencies are disproportionate; the legacy of an historic Town and Country divide that marginalized St Helier politically in the past even though it was the economic hub and contained half the population until at least the end of the 20th century. It’s a legacy the political class is unable to address without alienating their traditional power and voter base.

There simply is no international democratic principle that voters should have the same number of votes. This was deliberate confusion and refusal to acknowledge the guidelines of the Venice Commission that constituencies should be of equal sizes and never more than 10% difference. 

“Is the woody there?”

It was therefore completely disingenuous when BBC presenter Matthew Price ventured this classic “we are going into next Autumn’s elections with the least representative electoral system we could have chosen”. This is completely untrue. Option B is more disproportionate than the present system.

For certain there cannot be many States Members who will believe any of the arguments in the current government counter attack to regain the initiative for Option B. 

However, Friday’s performance will have confused the public even more as the arguments get twisted to suit the ends. Propaganda rules, not informed debate.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

ST HELIER’S 10,000 MISSING VOTERS – Voter registration - boring but vital

The recent cull of voters off the electoral rolls across the island has been completed . This means there are sure to be many who will find they have lost the right to vote by not having filled in a voter registration form in the last three years. 

So, its time to start a new voter registration campaign bearing in mind there are elections next year.

Yes, its boring to keep completing those pink, green or yellow forms that the Parishes send out at regular intervals and then find their way into the “In File” and rapidly disappear to the bottom and finally get thrown out with last months’ Sunday newspapers.

In St Helier the cull has removed 2007 names from the electoral role. This breaks down as follows:                                            

Roll - Referendum                       April 2013
Roll - September 2013
Eligible voters (2011 Census) *
Voter penetration %
District No 1
District No 2
District No ¾


* Source Electoral Commission 2013

Comparison with data obtained from the 2011 Census indicates there are 10,000 missing eligible voters from the St Helier electoral rolls. This figure comes from subtacting the number on the current role (16,762) from the 26,860 that the Electoral Commission determined were eligible voters using data from the 2011 Cenus.

This puts the usual 60- 70% voter abstention into even starker relief. If one takes the results in St Helier of the Referendum in April 2013, in which 932 voted for Option B in the first round, this represent a minuscule 3% of eligible voters. So much for the referendum being a ringing endorsement of anything, let alone Option B. So much for legitimacy. That said, St Helier, by a margin of two to one, voted for Option A. 

Does anyone in government worry about this state of affairs? We know the answer. Resposibility rests with the Parishes, who compile the electoral roll and have undertaken the current cull. The political leadership of the Parishes is indifferent to the issue and the task of getting up the numbers falls upon a number of hard working and enthusiastic officials whose efforts are never fully recognised.

If we want to know why voter registration is such a cinderella subject we dont have to look far for an explanation. The reason is FEAR. Those that hold power fear mass participation of the population in political affairs. The current passivity, indifference and disengagement is terribly suitable, to some. 

There is a major disconnect between the governed and the governors. It is not confined to ourselves, as it is widepread across all democracies. That said, it remains very evident here. Voter abstention islandwide is 60% rising to 70% in St Helier. Those elected and the governments they form are not representative. They know they have a major legitimacy crisis. Look down gentlemen; look down.

An extended voter registration campaign should be commenced immediately to get the numbers back on the electoral role. We must also campaign for hope. To convince people that politcs matters and that one day Jersey might have representative governments, not minority rule.

The problem rests with the political class and their refusal to modernise and democratise. The position of the Right is well summed up in one of their secret aphorisms -