5 afterthoughts on the Referendum…

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5 afterthoughts on the Referendum…

In the days running up to yesterday’s Referendum, I posted five thoughts on what the results could mean for Guernsey’s democracy.

The votes are in and Option A – a single, island-wide election for all 38 States Members – topped the poll in the first and last rounds of voting. That means big changes for Guernsey and a very short window – only eighteen months – to get them in place before the next election. It’s going to be a tough two years!

In the short term, States Members (and the public) urgently need to turn our attention to the 2019 States Budget, which will be debated on Tuesday 6 November, and the associated issue of sweeping changes to the civil service. There’ll be a period of work behind the scenes as SACC figures out exactly how we’re going to put this decision into practice, and then it’ll come back to the States to be ratified. So, for now, I just wanted to wrap up on the Referendum with five quick ‘afterthoughts’.

5. We gave people a meaningful choice. When I was a candidate in 2016, people in my district asked if I supported island-wide voting. At the time, I said “yes – so long as we give people workable options to choose from.” If we’d had a yes-no referendum where the only two options looked like caricatures of island-wide voting, the result would have had very little public confidence. So although, in the end, the simplest form of island-wide voting won out, I’m satisfied that the multiple-choice referendum was the right thing to do.

Before I started door-knocking in 2016, I would have guessed that 75% of Guernsey people supported island-wide voting. Afterwards, it felt more like 50-50. The results of the referendum pretty much bear that out. But I think it was decisive enough to put this debate – which has plagued Guernsey politics for years – to bed, for at least a couple of electoral cycles!

And one more thing to savour – we introduced a new-to-Guernsey form of direct democracy (referendums). We jumped straight in at the deep end, with multiple options and transferable votes, and people rose to the challenge. 45% of people on the electoral roll turned out to vote: a good solid number for something as obscure as reforming the electoral system. We’ve tried and tested the concept and found it works: we need to use this additional democratic tool wisely in future.

4. Teamwork and preparation will be essential. Party politics may or may not be inevitable now – teamwork certainly is.

In order to reach enough of the island to win a decent vote at election time, would-be States Members are going to have to work together. One obvious answer is parties – this gives voters a shortcut to knowing which candidates share a common agenda (provided, of course, that party manifestos are clearer than individual manifestos have been in the past – it’s not guaranteed!). In addition, being part of a party means you can work as a team to reach most of the island.

I’m not someone who likes party politics, though. For one, I like being an independent – I couldn’t hold a party line. Less selfishly, there are people in the States whose policies I don’t agree with, but whose integrity and judgment I value. Party membership may tell you plenty about politics, but little about character – and character matters, especially in a small community. That’s why I stress teamwork: if we want to see the States filled with good people of all stripes, we (candidates and voters alike) may need to work across ‘party lines’ to support each other at election time.

It’ll be particularly hard, though, for those who are new to politics to break into the networks of trust and support you’ll need to succeed in an island-wide voting system. So preparation matters – long before the election, potential candidates need to start sounding out each other, and existing States Members, and building relationships, working out who they can trust and establishing their own trustworthiness and credibility. This has always been worth doing, but will really be essential now.

3. Accessibility matters. We haven’t figured out what will replace door-knocking and parish-based hustings yet but, whatever the answer is, the question of accessibility needs to be front and centre.

Our current style of canvassing is inaccessible to many disabled candidates. It will get worse if our answer, under island-wide voting, is simply to expect candidates to walk around more of the island, and to attend several rounds of hustings. But we now have a prime opportunity to think about accessibility in elections from scratch and to build it in to our new ways of working. The 2016 election was the first Guernsey general election in which all disabled people had the vote – wouldn’t it be great if the 2020 election was our most accessible election ever?

We must make sure that accessibility cuts both ways, too. At the moment, voters have a fairly small number of manifestos to read and have the convenience of candidates showing up on their doorstep. Island-wide voting will change this, but we must do all we can to ensure that it remains simple and straightforward for people to find out all they need to know about the people they want to vote for.

Through this blog, and by direct email, I’m calling on SACC to set up an Accessibility working party, including non-States members, to ensure that its proposals for the new island-wide voting system are as inclusive as they can be.

2. This is part of the solution, at best. I said this before the Referendum, too! If you want to talk about improving the quality of government, changing the way we vote for States Members is just one piece of the puzzle, and a small one at that.

Last month, I said that I might ask the States to bring back the 7 seats that were cut before the last general election. I don’t believe I can do that now – we need to see how straightforward (or not) it is to elect 38 people in one sitting, before we even think about changing the number. I’d be happy to hear from people who view it differently, but I don’t think we can now make that change within this States’ term.

Other factors – training, induction, scrutiny – will still play a vital role in strengthening the quality of government, and we need to be thinking about these, too, well ahead of the next election. A breadth of candidates, with a wide range of talent and experience to offer, will also be critical. And there’s a new factor – the Chief Executive’s proposed changes to the civil service, only announced in the last couple of days – which could have a significant impact for better or worse, depending on what is finally implemented. Those need careful and urgent attention now.

We’ve got the result of the Referendum, and it’s on us to make it happen as smoothly and effectively as possible now. But the conversation about what makes a thriving democracy, or a good government, is much wider than just the way we vote, and we can’t neglect the other elements either.

1. There are going to be a few surprises. Without a doubt, some people supported island-wide voting because they wanted the satisfaction of Not Voting for someone they dislike. But that is undoubtedly a two-edged sword – people who might not have been popular in their parish will have a constituency (based on a shared interest or background, perhaps) across the Island. On the flip side, people who’ve got a strong support base within their parish will be exposed to a different kind of critical scrutiny on an island-wide basis. Seeing how voting patterns change at the next election will be fascinating.

Will we get more populism or less? Who knows. You can imagine something like the debate around the L’Ancresse Wall, which had a strong parish edge to it, playing out very differently in an island-wide system. On the other hand, non-parish issues, such as the future of secondary education or the introduction of assisted dying, might become even fiercer and more divisive (if possible) in the context of party-based politics.

Island-wide voting, not unlike our current system, is bound to give each of us a little bit of something we like and a lot of other things we don’t much care for. It’ll shed some old imperfections and introduce some new ones. We won’t be able to design out all its weaknesses in our first attempt because, until we’ve seen how it plays out in a general election, we won’t really know what they are – this means that successive States might have to fine-tune some of the rules around the system as they go. It’s going to be an interesting journey. Let’s see where it takes us.

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