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.


  1. I told you it would be a waste of time, I'm glad I didn't vote!

    So, why do we need constituencies? We're only a small island and almost everyone uses (or passes through) most parts of it regularly - or cares about parishes the other side of the place - so why split things up?

    When I can vote for all of them, that's when I bother turning out to the polls again.

  2. One large constituency comprising the island electing 42 or 51 or 49 members would be logistically difficult in the absence of political parties. Everyone would have 42, 51 or 49 votes and only use about 6 or 10 for people they "knew".

    If we are to have constituencies then they should be of equal size in terms of eligible voters, giving anyone who lived there the same influence as anywhere else in the island. Electing Constables, some with mandates of 1500 and others 29000 generates immediate unfairness. To create constituencies of equal size (the logical and rational way if starting from scratch) would mean getting rid of Constables as States Members elected in geographical spaces containing vastly different sizes of population. Overcoming the historical legacy of Constables is the issue. They are the last vestige of the Ancien Regime Etats made up of Jurats, Clergy, Constable, Bailiff and later Deputies. Rationalising and reforming the constitution has not been simple. 1947 was a missed opportunity to create a simple system, but the inertia and weight of tradition prevailed. Subsequently the virtue of political stability was pursued at the price of democratic nicety. Now we are faced with catch up.

    The existence of a plurality of political parties would give the electorate clarity and policy choice, something wholly denied by the present personality based system that masks the real “one party state”.

  3. Nick, thanks for a very informative blog.

    "Genuine democratic reform must take the form of one category of States Member all elected on the same day in constituencies of equal size"

    That just about nails it. If you were designing a system from scratch, that is how you would design it.

    Please keep blogging more often, to get this message home. Your message is spot on. And I'm a right wing Tory!

  4. One large island-wide constituency would be fine if the members' terms overlapped, with an election each year for a small set of them - keeping both the public engaged and hot issues in the spotlight. It would make Jersey a model democracy showing how keen we are to stay involved each year. Anyone bored by 'too frequent' elections would be free to ignore them until they find an interest again :)

  5. How about Annual Parliaments - one of the Chartists' demands?

    The virtue of the single election day with everyone elected on that same day puts a sitting candidate in jeopardy of losing their seat. This keeps the representative more in awe of the electorate. There are no second chances.

    The single election day creates a General Election when the electorate has the opportunity to throw out the existing rascals and replace them.

    The process of staggered elections, as with the Senators, served the interests of government more than the electorate, by ensuring continuity from one Assembly of a potential leadership group. Stability and continuity triumphed over democratic choice.