With five days to go until Guernsey’s first referendum, here are five reflections on our current political system, its virtues and vices. They’re not a direct commentary on any of the options, but I hope they might help to highlight what could be gained and what could be lost, as you weigh up your choices for Wednesday’s vote.
5. We have really rich political representation already. And I don’t mean “wealthy”. In Guernsey, there’s one politician to every 1,600 people, and every islander gets to elect up to a seventh of the whole parliament (nearly 15%). In the UK there’s one MP in the House of Commons for every 101,600 people, and every person votes for 1/650th of the parliament (only 0.15%).
There’s also no meaningful difference between “government” and “parliament” here, meaning that every person who gets elected can play a some role in shaping the States’ agenda – although some politicians do so by choice, no one has to sit outside in a purely Opposition role, challenging but not contributing to the development of policy.
And because we are small but semi-independent, the same 38 politicians who are answering your emails about planning applications or hospital waiting lists one day may be negotiating tax and social security agreements with other nations the next; discussing energy or housing policy with senior ministers at the British-Irish Council; or speaking on behalf of Guernsey among representatives from across the Commonwealth at the CPA.
In other words: we have a substantial amount of direct political representation already; everyone we elect has the opportunity to make an impact within government; and you’re only ever a phonecall or email away from the people who are shaping Guernsey’s place on the world stage. Compared to all that, the additional representation arising from island-wide voting offers at most a marginal gain, not a radical shift in the political power available to Guernsey people. We’ve already got that in abundance – and lack of island-wide voting doesn’t explain why people make so little use of it.
4. We solve problems, we don’t implement ideologies. In a parliament of 38 independents, it’s impossible for a single ideology (of the right or the left) to shape everything that the States does.
That can be frustrating sometimes, but it also builds in a degree of stability (there’s no sudden switching of tracks when one party or another gains power) and it keeps us focused on solving actual problems as they present themselves. Not that we solve every problem to everyone’s satisfaction (can you name a single government that ever has?) or even that we always agree on what’s a problem and what’s not (I’m bothered about income inequality, for example, while some States Members couldn’t care less) but at least we are more focused on the here-and-now than some Utopia.
Lack of parties also means that very few of us come to the issue at hand with a predetermined solution, to be enforced by a party whip. Most Deputies (with the possible exception of the Charter bloc, who’ve chosen to work together on most things) tend to approach issues by applying our own principles, knowledge and skills, and learning from others’ expertise, in order to assess the options and find possible solutions. Over the course of a single States’ debate, I can find myself voting with many different constellations of colleagues, depending on the issue at hand. That fluidity would be lost in a party system, while division and personalisation of politics would be amplified.
I love EM Forster’s short piece on democracy – especially what it says about how it lets ordinary citizens flourish. It’s well worth a read. I’ve no doubt that each of us longs for quicker, sharper, more authoritarian-style decision-making in government – provided those decisions line up perfectly with our view of how the world should be arranged. But I’m confident that messy democracy serves us all better, because it serves us all. Better decisions are made for islanders because 38 people bring their individual judgment and insights to the table than any dilution of that, even into parties, would do. That might be different on a bigger scale, but here, a parliament of independents is undoubtedly one of the strengths and safeguards of our democracy.
3. We benefit from lots of quiet hard-workers. The States is enriched by the many hours of hard work that States Members put in behind the scenes to solve problems – sometimes just for an individual parishioner; sometimes for whole groups of islanders.
Some States Members choose to do a lot of their politics in the public eye – I’m one of them; Deputies Inder, Roffey and Ferbrache are others. But the fact that we make more noise than others doesn’t mean we’re doing more work than them. The sustained hard work of many of my most valued colleagues – people like Deputies Victoria Oliver, Sarah Hansmann-Rouxel, Shane Langlois, Rhian Tooley, Dawn Tindall and Jennifer Merrett – barely breaks the surface of public awareness. Others are recognised because they are Presidents, or have become established names because of long service, but the extent of their work on a broad range of issues is barely known.
There are all sorts of factors at play. One is that not every problem needs to be an excuse for a confrontation – a lot of good work is done by raising issues with Committees privately, who go on to resolve them without embarrassment or grudge. Another is that, even when States Members are trying to solve problems in the public eye, we can’t control what (or if) the media chooses to report about it. And maintaining a personal platform or social media presence, like this, is a serious investment of time and can’t be prioritised above the Committee and constituency work that it’d be used to raise awareness of – a proper catch-22.
At the moment, the parish link in our electoral system means that at least Deputies have an opportunity to connect with people door-to-door at election time. It also means that you’re more likely to contact a Deputy from your own parish for help than one from another part of the island, so States Members build up relationships with a group of voters who have first-hand experience of the care (or lack of it) that they bring to their work. The loss of that link would almost certainly cost the island modest, thoughtful hard-workers at the price of people who are all shine and no substance.
2. The referendum is only part of the solution, at best. I’m glad we’ve reached a point in the public debate surrounding the referendum where this seems to be widely recognised. It’s clear that whatever the public decides on October 10, it won’t change the nature of our government overnight. In many ways, that’s no bad thing – as I’ve shown here, I think there’s a lot in our current system of government that’s worth preserving.
But I also know it’s far from perfect. For example, a lot of people who join the States for the first time think (incredibly!) that it’s an easy fix – that they just need to get in there and bang a few heads together, and there we go. That attitude doesn’t last long once reality hits, but it gets people elected, and it stops them from making the effort to learn how the States works before they stand. That means learning on-the-job instead, and that means it can take months or years after an election before people really become as effective as they could be as politicians.
If we want to improve the quality and effectiveness of States’ decision-making, we could do more to improve general public knowledge about the role; targeted education for would-be States Members; and induction processes for new Members. I think we could also improve things by increasing the size of the States – I’d like to see the restoration of the seven seats axed at the last Election – because that will increase the pool of knowledge, talent and skills available to work on the very varied business of government.
But this one’s also on you. The quality of the States will improve if more islanders from more walks of life – people like you – are willing to set aside their ambitions for four years to serve their community. It’s not a fun job, but it’s a job worth doing. Doubly so if you approach it with the humility to know you won’t and can’t fix everything, but are willing to contribute to the hard slog of making things gradually better (and, all too often, stopping them getting worse!).
And if you want to see more people with different professional and personal experience stand for the States, but you won’t do so yourself, please at least stop with the drip-drip-drip of devaluing the role. The level of personal insult on social media is pretty awful, but comments like “most of them couldn’t get a good wage outside the States” are far more insidious. If you make “States Member” synonymous with “incompetent grasper” in the public vocabulary, anyone who hopes to have a career beyond the States – any professional person whose prospects depend on respect for their intellect and their achievements – will think long and hard before standing. In the future, just as now, most will decide against it, for perfectly valid reasons, and the island will lose out.
1. Every vote counts! If you are on the Electoral Roll, please pop in to your local polling station on Wednesday and vote for your preferred option. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to vote in Guernsey’s first-ever referendum, and to determine the shape of our electoral system for several generations.
If 40% of people on the electoral roll (that’s about 12,000 people) turn out to vote on Wednesday, the States has agreed to be bound by the result of the referendum. So the more people who vote – even if they’re all voting different ways – the more impact every single vote has. That’s got to be a good reason to show up, and to encourage your friends and family to do so too.
The “rank your options from 1 to 5” approach has led to a lot of confusion, but islanders are a smart bunch, and we’ll figure it out. The thing to remember is this: the first time the votes are counted, only Number 1 votes are included.
But if, say, you put your (1) against Option Z (I’m not going to use the real ones) and no one else did, it’ll be knocked out in the first round. So, in the second round of voting, when there’s only Options Y, X, W and V left on the table, the counters will look at where you put your (2) instead. It’s a way of giving you an opportunity to take part in multiple rounds of voting, if they’re needed, without having to go around giving new voting slips to everyone whose favourite option got knocked out in the first round.
But you’re not obliged to use all your numbers. You can just put your (1) against your favourite option, and your vote will still count – your support for that option will be clear.
Whatever you do, please don’t leave it up to other people to decide. The question of island-wide voting has preoccupied States after States – it’s time for Guernsey people to make a clear statement about the electoral system we’d like best, so that the matter can finally be put to rest – for a while, at least. It’ll only take a few minutes to vote on Wednesday – please make sure that you do.