As expected todays States debate on electoral reform was shambolic.
The highlights of the day were:
- Debut of Reform Jersey – successful lobby in Royal Square
- Ozouf Machiavellianism – Proposition pulled to be last man standing
- Paralysis – political right unable to break with gerrymandered past
- Referendums on Clothier and Constables in Oct 2014
Enter Reform Jersey
Reform Jersey made its debut in the Royal Square this morning on the political stage to lobby States Members arriving for the debate. Being 5th November, it was appropriate there should be Guy Fawkes masks and barrels of make believe gunpowder as props to add a little comedy. Posters with demands and slogans made clear it was time to stop the gerrymandering that has been in place since 1948, if not for centuries. St Helier, with one third of the island population should have political representation to match.
It was masterly tactics, like a card dealer taking an Ace from the bottom of the pack, Senator Ozouf sought to “defer” his proposition P93/2013 until later in the debate. He did so coyly suggesting it did not command the prospect of a majority by being debated first and should therefore act as a “fall back proposal”. States Members were aghast at the audacity but could do nothing.
Senator Ozouf’s grand plan is to leave P93 as the last man standing after all other propositions have been lost. Fall they did and by 5pm those of Deputies Pitman, Green, the Constable of St Mary and that of PPC itself had all been relegated to the dustbin. P93 is in fact Option B from the April Referendum slightly tweaked to give St Helier two extra Deputies because of the “perceived” inequality of representation between it and other places. It remains a gross gerrymander that leaves Constables in place and does nothing to address the historical Town- Country divide. PPC’s academics in their report ranked it as among the worst by the criteria of under representation.
The loss of Option B in July, left the party of government and the right fuming with impotence. What they thought was going to be a walk in the park turned out to be a humiliation as States Members baulked at the prospect of reduction in their numbers. Ever since there have been behind the scenes activity to get Option B back on the rails.
The myth Option B ever commanded a majority
A number of members from the right kept referring in their speeches to the public choice in the Referendum having been ignored in the July vote. There is a myth, perpetuated by the media, that Option B commanded a majority, when in fact it never did, albeit mathematically winning only after Option C voters’ second preferences were transferred. The Referendum was only ever advisory, or as Senator Bailhache referred to it on BBC Radio Jersey on the day after. as a “glorified opinion poll”. Had it ever been intended to be binding, States Members would have been swarming all over the detail well in advance. Accountability is something States Members utterly detest.
In particular, the Constable of St Helier used some rather quaint turns of phrase, referring to Option B as “the proposition of the people” and “the people’s choice”, which the States had responsibility to implement. This all sat in a most peculiar fashion, as the Constable had officially declared as a supporter of Option A, albeit his subsequent conduct on PPC, of which he was then Chairman, and now, raise questions as to that professed loyalty. Incidentally, the voters of St Helier had no doubt that Option B was a gerrymander and by a ratio of 2 to 1, supported Option A.
As the various propositions fell, it was quite evident that the Assembly had no enthusiasm for the cause of reform. There were a number of classic speeches that illustrate that the political class as a whole are incapable of embracing democratic changes.
Deputy Le Bailly of St Mary came out with some memorable reactionary phrases. He confused the Venice Commission with the Vienna Convention, describing it as “another European Directive akin to Brussels”. It was better not to “mess with the Constitution” and instead concentrate on the things that mattered to people, namely unemployment and affordable housing. All of which is an code for doing nothing. He intended to vote against all the propositions before the House.
The Constable of St Mary, a former member of the Electoral Commission, faced derision when she came out with the observation that just because one third of the island population lives in St Helier it "doesnt follow they should have one third of the representatives".
Why might that be so one has to ask the Constable? Why do 1700 people in a constituency called St Mary have two representatives, whilst another constituency with 30,000 only has eleven?
The answer is, as she knows, but cannot admit, that it ensures power in the States rests in the hands of the wealthy to the detriment of working people in urban areas. This is what is meant by gerrymandering.
After the propositions of PPC and that of Deputy Green had sunk without trace, there remained floating on the surface two pieces of debris marked Referendum. Somehow the Assembly, in its inimicable fashion, had mustered a majority in favour of not one but two referendums to be held at the same time as the October 2014 elections. That they are mutually contradictory shows how absurd the process of reform has become.
The referendums will be:
1. “with a single Yes/No question to ask voters whether they agree that the Constables should remain as members of States Assembly as an automatic right“
2. “with a single Yes/No question to ask voters whether they agree that the States Assembly should, with effect from the 2018 elections, be comprised of a single category of members elected on a parish basis in accordance with the recommendation of …(the ‘Clothier’ Report)”
“A British political elite which used to detest and dismiss the idea of referenda is suddenly in favour of them all over the place in defence of the shibboleth of parliamentary sovereignty. This is about the challenges of political disconnect, lack of trust and legitimacy, and a desperate attempt to rewin political consent.”Gerry Hassan
The three barrels,standing on their own in the Royal Square next to the States Building, were a reminder that governments in the modern age rule only with the consent of the people.