Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Putting the wheels back on Option B. Why the party of government is suddenly so desperate for Reform

We all know the well laid plans of mice and men go astray. So what contingencies did the party of government have to ensure their Option B version of gerrymandered “Reform” is in place before the election of 2014, if it failed to pass the States? None, it would seem. There is no plan other than to put Option B back on the agenda and ram it through the States again and again until it is passed. How will this be achieved? How flexible are the 21 "B Specials" prepared to be and what concessions or compromises are they prepared to make? Few it would seem from the latest blog of Senator Ozouf and certainly nothing that will make for a genuinely democratic structure compliant with the Venice Commission Guidelines.

The defeat of P64/2013 in the States by 28 to 21 votes was pretty decisive. To win it needed a minimum of 26 votes. Option B lost because all along it was so gross that too many vested interests in the States were offended.  There were a few principled defenders of a democratic structure, but these were always going to be a minority. Ultimately it was the numbers game that came into play. A States comprising only 42 members, of which 12 were anyway Constables, was going to result in too many job losses. Yes, the Turkeys refused to vote for Christmas, but likewise the Constables voted to retain safe seats. 

Ironically, the States in all its blindness did democracy in Jersey a favour by overturning a terrible contrivance and gerrymander. It now remains for the party of government to salvage the pieces and intimidate or bribe enough States Members to change their vote in a second debate in the autumn.

Legitimising the illegitimate

The result of the Referendum in April was supposed to cower the vested interests in States. It backfired. The turnout was a farcically low 26% and opinion was roughly evenly divided. Option B did not achieve a majority in the first round of counting and only achieved a narrow technical victory through the contrived device of shifting votes from Option C supporters.  With the electorate clearly indifferent, States Members could ignore the outcome of the Referendum, if indeed there was one, and safely vote as they saw fit, knowing there would be no electoral consequences in October 2014.

Anyway, the Referendum was purely advisory as even Senator Bailhache, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, let slip, when he described it in a BBC interview as a “glorified opinion poll”. The States remains sovereign and there was never any intention the Referendum be binding. 

In fact, the Referendum was designed to give a fig leaf of public legitimacy to a contrived result, knowing Option B, the preferred winner from the point of view of government, was democratically deficient and would face scrutiny by UK government lawyers at the Department of Justice on behalf of the Privy Council. The Referendum was designed to legitimise the illegitimate. The public were manipulated by the government.

Counterattack – media spin

The party of government may have been smarting after their defeat but did not waste time in getting their propaganda machine into action to spin the rejection. The rhetoric of disgust in the letters section of the JEP, editorials and opinion pieces by journalists, all claiming that the public will had been ignored, was entirely contrived. It was not the electorate that was furious; it was the party of government at their humiliation and defeat. A depoliticized electorate has no opinion and is easily manipulated, as many were into supporting Option B in the Referendum, on the basis of “our masters know best what is in our interest and we must trust them”. 

Behind all the righteous indignation is the simmering resentment of the party of government that misjudged; they simply could not muster the necessary 26 votes. The train that was to be rushed through the States, all steam and whistles, now lies overturned as a derailed wreck on platform B.

Option B supporters consider their next step in the long march to reform


The party of government and its loyalist supporters are becoming extremely agitated and there is even a note of desperation. Government Bills do sometimes get lost, but not this decisively and rarely do they provoke a reaction to bring it back and force it through.  Propositions cannot be brought back to the States for three months, so the earliest date for a new debate will be October.

It is often remarked that politics is about the art of the possible, so we should expect the government to make sufficient concessions to get its legislation through. Based on the latest blog by Senator Ozouf today, it would seem very little in the way of concession is being made.


An Autumn offensive

Deputy Sean Power was interviewed on BBC Radio Jersey today and, somewhat embarrassingly for him, did not know what Senator Ozouf was proposing. The only piece of news was a tweet by Senator Ozouf stating that he would be bringing a new proposition to the States for debate. In the dog days of Summer, when news is sparce, a mere tweet from a Minister is sufficient to run a story.

Deputy Power was convinced that the extra five votes to achieve the necessary minimum of 26 could be arranged by turning the “Wobblers” and forcing those Ministers and Assistant Ministers who had voted against into supporting the government line.

Senator Ozouf’s “compromise” on Option B

The party of government appears to have learnt little from the defeat of Option B and the reasons for that. On his blog Senator Ozouf states he intends to propose an additional 2 Deputies for St Helier by way of compromise, describing the Propositions of Deputy Green and Pitman, which would have added an additional 5 St Helier Deputies, as “too far”. Will such minimal concessions win over sufficient States Members? Unlikely one might think, especially since he has missed the fundamental criticisms of Option B, that it perpetuates the historic divide between Country and Town, leaving St Helier grossly underrepresented.

Senator Ozouf's initiative is an attempt to set the agenda when in fact the newly formed PPC has been tasked by the States to "seek alternatives for reform of the Assembly". Clearly for the supporters of Option B there can be no alternative; hence the desperation.

Option B cannot be tweaked by adding a few extra Deputies to St Helier. Believing so exposes the intellectual poverty and horse trading nature that underlies Option B, the Great Gerrymander.

Only by eliminating Constables as a category of States Member can constituencies be made of roughly equal size. This is a concession the party of government will never make as it goes to the issue of power. Retaining Constables ensures there is an inbuilt majority for the Executive in a States comprising 42 members.

It is clear the political class is incapable of reforming the electoral system and States Assembly in any significant democratic fashion. Otherwise they would never have proposed Option B. There is reluctance to even conceive of reform that would sweep aside ancient and undemocratic structures. Therefore, will it take for the British government to exercise its responsibilities for good government in the Channel Islands in the absence of an electorate capable of expressing its will?
Democrats must continue to campaign for a democratic electoral system and States Assembly based on the principles of fairness and equality across the island. They must put pressure on States Members to ensure there are no shameful compromises and betrayal of reform.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A close run thing for Democracy in Jersey - Option B “reform” disappears into the long grass

It was a close run thing that Option B, the “Great Gerrymander”, was defeated in the States by a vote of 28 to 21. Had it succeeded, then Executive power would have been entrenched, Scrutiny mutilated, Constables retained for another decade or so, and the urban areas, St Helier in particular, left grossly underrepresented. In other words genuine democratic reform would have been blocked for a generation or more. That danger remains.

The genie in the bottle
Genuine democratic reform is not lost, just delayed and will have to be approached by other ways. At least the genie is now out of the bottle and can never be put back in the sense that we have discovered the Venice Commission. This semi international convention sets out guidelines for a democratic electoral system. Option B was never compliant, but that did not stop it being put forward. We also now know the current structure is equally non compliant and one of the reasons there must be change. The unequal size of constituencies is the issue. Fairness does not tolerate the continued election of Constables as a category of States Member in constituencies of vastly differing proportions.

The electoral system in 1948 was not a fair one. Even after the upheavals following the Occupation, progressive forces, were unable to reform and democratise the stucture entirely, at a time when in the UK the Labour party was building the New Jerusalem. The defeat of the JDM in the 1948 election, allowed the creation of a structure that ensured the exercise of power was untoubled by the exegencies of elections or the electorate.

The Jersey media
The Jersey media is playing down defeat for Option B by running with the argument that the voice of the public, as expressed through the referendum, has been ignored once again. That only 26% of registered voters turned out for the referendum showed that the result lacked legitimacy. Option B never got a majority in the first round and only won on the second through the contrivance of shifting votes from Option C voters. It was recognised all along that there was an underrepresentation of the urban areas and that it would not pass muster with the Privy Council when it came for approval. Therefore, the referendum was interposed as a mechanism to legitimise the illegitimate – to show how much islanders desire Constables as representatives in the States. Turnouts at elections are around 40%, so when a major referendum on constitutional reform could only achieve a 26% turnout, there was a legitimacy deficit few could ignore.

That the urban areas are underrepresented is deliberate and also explains why turnout in the urban areas is so much lower. District 1 St Helier managed the island’s lowest turnout at 14% of the registered voters. Workers do not vote because they know their votes do not count. Furthermore there is no intention they should count. Hence the deep political malaise that is the enemy of all progressive change. 

All St Helier representatives, save the Constable, Roy Bryans and Deputy James Baker, voted against Option B (St Helier by 2 to 1 supported Option A in the referendum). Constable Crowcroft resigned from PPC following the defeat of the proposition he as head of PPC sought to bring. His contorted travail from declaration of support on his blog for Option A, to support and vote for Option B, has been inglorious.

We will never know what the Privy Council would have had to say about Option B. They might have said nothing and allowed it to pass. The Sark model of external pressure for reform and democratisation lies dormant. However, the separation of powers and role of the Bailiff in both Jersey and Guernsey remains to be resolved in the light of the Carswell report and the forced separation in Sark of the position of Senechal as Judge and chairman of the Chief Plees.

The worm of democracy - 10 into 8 won’t go
The danger remains that the Establishment will not rest to bring changes before the 2014 elections. They will call it reform, but its purpose is anything but. There clearly is fear of a model of 8 Senators, 12 Constables and 29 Deputies all elected on the same day in 2014. Senator Ozouf described it as “unworkable, unfair and undemocratic”. What he had in mind was probably that such a system would not necessarily secure the re-election of all existing Senators, his own seat included. This is precisely why the system when designed elected 6 of 12 Senators with mandates of 6 years, thus neatly avoiding the unpredictability of the electorate and ensuring continuity of power from one Assembly to the next. What a difference a single election day makes.

Senator Ozouf did not speak in the debate on the principles, but he did subsequently by assuring us “Reform must happen”. That is ominous as it means desperation will now drive the process to bring forward some variant of Option B type reform that avoids the perceived 2014 calamity.

Genuine democratic reform must take the form of one category of States Member all elected on the same day in constituencies of equal size. The electorate must have a say in structuring the Assembly and be presented with some form of policy choice. These are all principles that remain to be achieved and worth fighting for.