Friday, November 8, 2013

Clothier? Think Twice

Many of my politically interested friends are pleased to see that this week The States Of Jersey finally approved, in principle, a referendum on the revised electoral system proposed by the Clothier Commission. There is certainly a strong case for replacing the current mish-mash of accidents of history with a modern and coherently designed process. Nevertheless, despite those around me telling me how good Clothier is in theory, I have yet to see any explanation that actually convinces me it is the right way forward.

The Clothier scheme successfully addresses the equality questions that so many hold against the current complex voting system. Neither voters in their representation, nor politicians in their mandates, have any kind of equality from parish to parish and office to office. Clothier would have a single rank of members, all from similarly-sized constituencies. Job done.

However, I feel Clothier has provided the right answer to the wrong question. In general, equality is a better principle than inequality, but I disagree that it should take priority over effectiveness of representation. Before they started chipping at the current system, I had fourteen representatives, the Constable, a Deputy and twelve Senators. In the urban districts, despite their whinging about getting less than their share, the multi-Deputy districts had sixteen or seventeen representatives, including up to four of their own local ones. So, apart from uncontested elections, we all got to vote for or against over a quarter of our little parliament. That is actually pretty strong democracy, that most of the world would envy, despite the awkward structure benefiting the kind of candidates, that people who read blogs like this would not want. Now, cuts in Senators bring our shares down a little, but I can still look forward to ten votes at the next election. Even so, that is still almost a quarter, a real say in the make-up of the States.

What, in contrast would I have to look forward to on the first election day after an implementation of Clothier? Possibly, one single seat to vote on, and in my particular locality, if it were contested at all, there would still be only one potential winner. Thus, as an avid follower of politics and current affairs, I would find myself denied any significant power to contribute to the success of those I would like to see in government.

All around Jersey, others like me would find the same disengagement foisted upon them. Each district would put forward its popular local bigwig, with or without the bother of seeing off a no-hoper or two, and except in a handful of less predictable town seats, effective democracy would be wiped out. That prospect saddens and scares me.

A “Yes” vote for Clothier would certainly blast the present political establishment, but it would be a suicide bomb that takes our own hopes for better democracy with it. Don't do it!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Trinity For Unity?

With a year to Jersey's next election, the politically interested are once again turning their mind to the island's remarkable lack of formal political parties.

Eight years ago, the 2005 election saw a surge of interest in party politics. The Centre Party, who were actually staunchly right-wing, but just not of the Establishment, soon vanished, while the Jersey Democratic Alliance nearly settled into becoming a permanent institution, taking several years to fade away after an unsustainably vigorous start. The Establishment politicians, for their part, did not see the need to set up a formal party to promote their own side, but they made it clear that there was a considerable amount of teamwork between those who intended to be working together when elected or re-elected.

Several more years of drifting in the same direction have kept those who are content with it from wanting to be any more politically active than they were. However, those, who are are discontented with various aspects of Jersey's current government, are beginning to feel the lack of formal vehicles to express their grievances and, one day, possibly implement solutions.

To topple, or even constrain, the established clique of ethically challenged cynics will require all who are not positively with them to unite against them. Saying that much is facile, but the first challenge is in how to unite them in a manner that is both flexible enough to accommodate internal dissensions without schism, and strong enough to maintain a cohesive direction. The Jersey Democratic Alliance was initially founded with the intention to be a very broad group, hence the name of Alliance. However, the centre-right element soon found themselves uncomfortable with the dominance of more left-wing thinkers, by both work rate and intellectual power, and baled out. The centre-left element bled away more slowly over the next five years, and, since the left-wing remainder became, in effect, the Jersey Labour Party, it has done nothing, if it even continues to exist at all. If practical lessons can be learned and applied from the JDA experience, though, then it was not all in vain.

To form a party, there has to be a nucleus of people agreed on a series of policies that they either desire, or at least assent to for the sake of their colleagues' desires, and motivated to pursue them. They can then recruit the uncommittedly sympathetic as rank-and-file members, and market the policies to the relatively apolitical general public as something worth voting for, come election time. Now, it seems to me that there are more than one tenable set of policies that could be pursued, according to taste and conscience. Therefore, there should be different nuclei of supporters around the different visions. The consequence of that, in turn, is a multi-party system.

A multi-party system, though, does not in itself unite the opposition, so much as formalise its divisions. Thus, to actually achieve anything, the parties must form coalitions to implement the overlaps on their policy lists, which will probably be quite substantial. Many things that should be either done or undone remain good or bad in capitalist, social democratic and socialist societies alike, and the parties can agree to do that much together. In a simple two-party system, cross-party agreements do not happen as often as they should, as tactical gaming tends to displace political integrity, but, with four-plus parties, dirty players can just get frozen out and marginalised.

If Jersey is to succeed in achieving the degree of political health most comparable jurisdictions enjoy, we need more than a party. We need a diversity of parties, and we need formal inter-party structures in turn. I envisage something like this as the way forward:

Four to six smallish parties, perhaps representing left, centre-left, centre-right and right on the traditional socio-economic continuum, and maybe green and libertarian taking other priorities, would make the basis. Most people, who would be activists at all, could find something for them amongst that selection.

Pairs or trios of parties with substantially overlapping aims would then have coalition agreements to work together on these shared aims and co-operate electorally. Certainly there is scope and even need for such a coalition between a leftist party and any centre-left and green party that may also form, and other parties will probably want to make similar connections.

All parties would benefit from also having an association of Jersey political parties, strictly concerned with the general promotion and support of party politics, and neutral as to what its constituent parties' politics may be. This could be used to both make general recruitment drives to encourage the public to work for their political beliefs, whatever they may be, and as a lobby group, to discourage The States from further measures to restrict the formation and growth of political parties.

The detailed picture of what emerges would have to depend on how many people actually care enough about what policies. There is a threshold of 20 signatories required under Jersey Law to found a party in the first place, and, given our firmly entrenched tradition of political apathy, some of the parties that could have been might not find them.

Anyway, I see the way to mount an effective challenge to the Establishment clique as not a simple unity of opposition, but a trinity of such left-wingers as there are in Jersey in one party, non-socialist liberals like myself in another, and a formal joint project of the two parties to organise a coalition in pursuit of the two parties shared objectives.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Option A In Depth

for longer than I can personally remember, Jersey has been beset by a widespread concern that the machinery of government does not function quite so well for us as we could expect, from the examples of how it functions elsewhere. Thus, we have had, in recent years, the Clothier fiasco and now the Bailhache Commission, looking to make much-needed improvements.

 A decade ago, the public's leading grumble was inefficiency: All those members putting their 2d-worth into everything, slowing down the pace and sometimes even forcing the cancellation of rash schemes. However, we weren't careful enough in what we wished for. Now we have Ministerial government and the Troy Rule, concentrating power at the expense of diminishing control, and leaving a majority of Members on the back-benches, constitutionally barred from the work they actually sought to do. Meanwhile, they continue to be derided for perceived inefficiency.

 The focus of concern has moved on, though, to the question of how we end up with the politicians we do, anyway. And so, we have had the Bailhache Commission. They have given us four options, none altogether satisfactory, and passed the buck back to the voting public for the next stage, although the final decision will not be ours.

 The Commission have, inexplicably, demanded that any reform of electoral process be yoked to an arbitrary reduction in the size of the House. This is hugely problematical: Already, Ministers and Assistant Ministers are unable to oversee their Departments with anything like the thoroughness of the traditional Committees that they replaced. Reducing the number of Members, with a pro-rata decrease in Assistant Ministers, will only aggravate that problem. A 42 member States will soon find themselves torn between three problems. The Executive can keep power at the expense of control, as all the decisions pile up on a reduced number of desks, or they can abandon the Troy Rule, and its theoretical check on executive excess, to bring enough politicians back into government to keep the workload down, at risk of idealogical dilution, or they can urgently add a seat or even two per constituency, to make a 48 or 54 member House that can sustain a 25 or 28 member executive within the Troy Rule.

 All that should not really have been part of the question, but as it has been wrongly made so, we must take it into account.

 I deliberately wrote that we have been offered four options, despite there being only three on the ballot paper. There is a fair groundswell of support for “Option D”, the implicit fourth choice of abstention, whether passively by boycotting the poll, or actively by spoiling the paper. In favour of this choice, it does send the message that none of the others met people's hopes. On the other hand, it is open to being spun as a sign of indifference, and, if it is the dominant response, the States are likely to regard it as carte blanche to please themselves

. Worse still is Option C, to positively endorse remaining with the system that is failing us. No doubt it would be a relief to sitting States Members to know that their seats will still be there, should they want re-election, but it would completely fail to deal with the inequalities of votes and mandates that discredit the States in the eyes of so many electors

. Yet even Option C looks good in comparison with Option B. The new constituencies can be considered when I look at Option A, but the glaring feature of Option B is the increased emphasis on the role of Constables in the States. I know of no other place in the world where free places in parliament are automatically given to local municipal mayors, as Constables would be described elsewhere. If we had the best government on Earth, then we would have a case for taking pride in this being part of our winning recipe. However, the starting point for the whole reform issue is that our government is conspicuously failing to measure up to its peers at present. So, what might we be doing wrong here? One of the most obvious things is clogging up a quarter of the places in the legislature with people with a primary duty to another level of administration, to the detriment of their work for both. The claimed justification that they are there specifically to represent those other levels is misguided, to say the least. Nowhere else does it, and nowhere else has a problem with local government arising from not doing it. I do not believe that there is something uniquely feeble about Jersey's parishes, that would make them wither, were they to gain their Constables' undivided attention. Option B would aggravate the problem, by reducing only the number of Members without split commitments.

 A further drawback of the Constables' continuing membership of the States is, that the community standing and knowledge of the municipal administration that go to make a good Constable do not necessarily go together with the outlook on larger issues that a voter might wish for in his States representative. For example, in the UK, with its clear and unmuddled separation of tiers, it is not uncommon for the Liberal Democrats to be a town's party of choice for the local council, despite sending another party's candidate to Westminster.

 Finally, my reverse tour up the ballot paper stops at Option A. As I noted above, the reduction of numbers to 42 is a mistake that will be regretted, should we choose to go down this road. However, the six-constituencies for all members elected on similar mandates is a massive improvement. I liked having 12 Senators I could vote for, but their numbers are being cut anyway, so the possibility of voting on over a quarter of the places in the States has already been lost to us. The big multi-member constituencies maintain a large fraction of the choice, though, and would improve matters by removing “rotten boroughs” that send Members, be they Deputies or Constables, to the House on so few votes that their credibility forever suffers scornful comparison with those there by the choice of thousands. These are the issues the Electoral Reform Commission was established to address, and Option A is, by and large, a remedy. Despite the unwise cut in numbers, option A is the only one to bring us up to the expectations of a modern Western democracy, and we need to send the message to the States by going out and voting for it. We shall just have to hope then, that the States then implement the voters' choice, but exercise some discretion about the reductions, which they well might, considering the cliché about turkeys and Christmas that perennially haunts the subject.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Option A, in a nutshell

Despite the superficial fairness, the even-handed offering of retention of Constables or both Constables and Senators as alternatives could be interpreted by voters as implying that they, too, would be equally acceptable outcomes.

There are strong grounds for endorsing Option A, the six multi-Deputy constituencies without Constables. Only the first option delivers a House in which all Members are specifically elected to do the job by a comparable electorate and all voters have a fair and equal say in choosing their Members.

The second option provides only 30 Members unencumbered by the running of a parish, while the part-timers would hold equal power from fewer, and in some cases far fewer, votes; one of principal flaws of the status quo that the reform should be addressing.

Even choosing to stay with the present unsatisfactory system after all would be better than Option B, although it would be a sad waste of an opportunity to both make a real improvement and close the subject for the long term.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sam Mezec On Referendum

I have nearly finished a more succinct piece on the same subject for this blog, but for a superbly written in-depth argument for Option A, read this: