The States is about to make a dreadful decision. We have no choice but to do it – but we owe it to the people of Guernsey to be honest about it. It is a dreadful thing for any sitting government to postpone an Election and extend its own term.
If Guernsey had to go to the polls right now, we couldn’t do it safely. There are public health measures in place to stop the spread of coronavirus (there’s more information at gov.gg/coronavirus), all of which aim to reduce contact between people, and to reduce the chance of the virus being passed on.
An Election involves massive movement of people. In the weeks before the Election, candidates go from house to house, asking people to vote for them. With island-wide voting, the format might change, but we still expect there to be face-to-face contact between candidates and voters. When it comes to voting, hundreds of people will head to each polling station to cast their votes – waiting in long queues, standing in cramped spaces, and sharing the same surfaces many others have touched before them. None of that is safe right now.
That isn’t going to change overnight. Based on what we know from other countries, we have to assume we won’t be out of the woods by May or June – when Guernsey’s General Election would have been held.
So we’ve got little choice but to consider delaying the Election. We would be putting people’s health, and even their lives, at risk if we didn’t. That’s why SACC (the States’ Assembly & Constitution Committee) has published a paper recommending that the Election be postponed. The States are going to meet tomorrow afternoon – Tuesday 14 April – to discuss it. We’ll be meeting virtually, but the Meeting will be broadcast as usual.
Like so many other things during this crisis, SACC had to produce its policy letter very quickly. This means it deals with the essentials, but it doesn’t put a lot of flesh on the bones to explain why we’ve made the choices we have. I can’t speak on behalf of the whole Committee, but as a member of SACC, I wanted to explain some of my thought processes behind the recommendations we’ve made, and what I hope States Members will take into account during tomorrow’s debate.
Will it be safe to hold a General Election in October 2020?
We have recommended delaying the General Election from June to October, in the first instance. But we know that there’s a lot still unknown about the long-term impact of coronavirus, and it’s impossible to say right now if it will be safe to hold an Election by October. So we have recommended that the States make a final decision about this in July. If October is still looking dodgy at that point, we’ll push the Election back further – to June 2021.
That July decision date is a safety valve. It gives us time to build up a clearer picture of how coronavirus is affecting Guernsey and the rest of the world. And it gives the officers who’ll deliver the Election, and the candidates who’ll take part in it, enough advance notice to prepare for it.
Why don’t you just delay the General Election for a year?
There is now an amendment in play from members of the Policy & Resources Committee, which recommends exactly that.
The reason why we didn’t recommend it as a Committee is – well, for the reason I opened with. A decision to delay an Election is a big deal, and a pretty awful thing for a government to do. We were elected for a four year term, and the public have every right to expect that after four years, we will stand aside and they will be able to choose who replaces us. That’s how it works in a democracy.
At the moment, postponing the Election is arguably the lesser of two evils. If we ask people to come out and vote right now, we are asking them to put their lives and health at risk. Of course, people put their lives and health at risk when they go and vote in a war zone – as people do, courageously, the world over. But they vote knowing that a change of leadership might help bring about an end to conflict – an end to the risk to their lives and health. That’s a trade-off you might consider worth making. But the current risk is not caused by politics, and a change in government won’t make us any safer – so the argument for delaying, and keeping people safe, is strong.
But delaying the Election for any other reason than public safety is the wrong decision. If you read the explanatory note to P&R’s amendment, they argue for ‘continuity with the current politicians’ to steer the Island through the economic consequences of coronavirus, and the ongoing Brexit negotiations. They also say that an October Election would affect the preparation of the Budget.
In my view, neither continuity, nor bureaucratic process, is a good enough reason to delay an Election. Imagine if we hadn’t had coronavirus, and the States chose to delay the Election simply to deal with an internal and external economic crisis – no matter how serious. It just wouldn’t be democratically legitimate to do so. The public health argument is the only one that stacks up.
SACC’s proposals aim to make it possible for Guernsey to hold a General Election as soon as we can safely do so. We think it is right to aim for October to begin with. If, and only if, October fails, we will look to extend the States’ term by a full year. This offers at least some democratic checks and balances, which jumping straight to a year’s delay would not do.
But the UK has decided to postpone its Elections by a year – why can’t we?
UK local government elections have been postponed by a year. That decision was made by the UK central government. The reasons why they opted for a full year, when six months was recommended by the Electoral Commission have not, to my knowledge, been explained. More to the point, however, that was not an instance of a government deciding to extend its own term – the decision was made by a separate authority. It’s still democratically imperfect, but it’s not as challenging as the decision the States has to make.
Why do you care so much about the States deciding to extend its own term?
Because it is almost impossible for us to make a dispassionate and fair decision when we are personally directly affected by its consequences. Personal temptations (whether job security or status) and professional temptations (especially, seeing through work we would have had the opportunity to complete if Covid-19 hadn’t intervened) are bound to affect our decision-making.
Critically, just because something is a “temptation” doesn’t mean it’s “dishonourable.” The desire to get Guernsey safely back on its feet in the aftermath of coronavirus is entirely honourable. The desire to see through work that will protect the vulnerable, or will help our economy to flourish again, is entirely honourable. It is because they are honourable desires that we believe they are legitimate reasons to delay the Election. They are not.
Every politician has had to walk away from work that’s dear to their heart at the end of a term. Every politician has had to trust that those who follow will respect what they’ve worked so hard to build. This term our ambitions as a States have been more-than-usually affected by factors that feel like they should be Someone Else’s Problem – first Brexit, now this. If only we could claw back the time and effort we have lost to them. But extending the term is not the right way to do that.
But what about the economic consequences of coronavirus?
Coronavirus has already had a stark impact on wages and on businesses – and, of course, on the States’ finances as we try to provide the financial support that people need to stay afloat. The same pattern can be seen around the world. We know that the road to recovery will not be easy for anyone. P&R’s argument – that we need continuity of government to ensure that we are well-equipped to meet the unprecedented economic challenge we now face – is one of the arguments I mentioned above: honourable, but not legitimate.
War-time spirit has been evoked many times already in our response to this crisis. Let’s evoke it one more time. The UK held a General Election on 5 July 1945 – less than two months after VE Day. The task of rebuilding and recovery that lay ahead was massive – unimaginable. And the public decided that they wanted to entrust that task to new hands, not the hands that had led them safely through the crisis.
In a democracy, we recognise that those of us who are in power right now are only there because of the good judgment of the public (to put it immodestly), and we trust the same good judgment of the public to reinstate us, or to replace us with other responsible people, when our time is up.
In the context of this crisis, we can clearly see that government decisions directly affect the lives of the people, for better or for worse. Once the immediate danger is past, the need for an Election to affirm or challenge what we are doing is – in my view – more important, not less. We will have to take the same leap of faith – when the immediate danger has passed, or at least been mitigated – that the UK took in 1945. And those of us who believe we can continue to serve the Island and lead it towards recovery over the coming years, will stand again and ask the Island to continue entrusting us with that responsibility.
What evidence do you have for your recommendations?
The trouble is, nobody – anywhere in the world – has a particularly complete picture of the shape that our lives with coronavirus will take over the coming months and years. How far will it be possible to return to the patterns of life that were normal until a couple of months ago, while keeping the risk safely under control? How long will it be before we have the vaccines and treatments to minimise the threat? How far will we adapt to this way of living, and start doing things differently, which we never imagined doing differently before?
At the moment we have very little evidence to make the case for an election in October, and equally little evidence to make the case for an election in June of next year. It goes against every instinct, but this simply can’t be an evidence-based decision, because so much of that evidence is yet to emerge. In the absence of evidence, you build in as many safeguards as you can. The SACC proposals – which will allow us to make a decision later this summer, when we may all know more about how things are unfolding – allow democratic and public health considerations to be sensibly balanced. In my opinion, the P&R amendment, which immediately postpones the Election by a year, does not.
Why have you proposed that there should be no new business after the start of April?
As we cannot safely hold an Election in June, my ideal would be to hold the Election in October, with no new business – that is, no policy letters which haven’t already been published – being allowed to come forward after what would have been the natural end of our term. That’s because I believe this would be truest to the ‘spirit’ of democratic legitimacy, if it’s possible to argue such a thing.
Of course, there must be exceptions: we must still be able to make decisions that relate to coronavirus or its consequences. We must also be able to deal with things that are urgent or time-critical for other reasons – for example, imagine if an inspection raised concerns about our justice system or our education system. The responsible Committees would have to be able to bring forward proposals to address the issue. SACC’s proposals would allow for this.
I know there are equally strong arguments in the other direction. In particular, some Deputies have said that, if we’re staying on as a government, we must govern – we can’t just be holding the space until it’s safe to have an Election. They might be right. Certainly, SACC has recognised that, if we end up delaying the Election until 2021, we’re going to have to allow new business to come forward – it wouldn’t be fair on Guernsey to have a government that was just treading water for a whole year.
The decision to delay the Election is an extraordinary one. I think that we need to reflect that in the way we decide to work during the period of any extension. Even if that means – as it will for me – passing up the opportunity to progress some work we’ve put a lot of effort into, and which we know will be good for the Island in the long run.
How long do you need to prepare for an Election?
One of the arguments made in favour of delaying the Election for a full year is that it will provide certainty, and minimise the burden of preparation on our officers. Of course there’s some truth in that, but the opposite argument also needs to be weighed – we were only three months away from a General Election. A great deal of the preparatory work has already been done, and can now be held until we’re ready to start again. If a final decision is made in July to hold the election in October, we will effectively be starting the clock on those last 3 months again.
I should just say that – whether the Election is held this October or next June – it is likely that we will still need to observe heightened public health measures to protect against the spread of disease during the campaign period and on voting days. That’s an area that will need careful thought and planning closer to the time, and that will doubtless put pressure on us all. Bizarrely, the island-wide voting process – which we already knew would involve more campaigning online, and more postal voting, than previous elections have done – might be far more easily adapted to a life with coronavirus than any other format. And we will all be far more proficient with the technology than we would have been just weeks ago!
Are there other risks linked to postponing the Election?
If the Election is delayed to October rather than to next year, it will fall towards the end of the annual Budget process. (Although having the Election in June rather than April is already problematic, when it comes to the Budget process.) I’m not going to repeat the argument that bureaucratic process can’t be a good enough reason for delaying the Election – I made that at length above. We need to acknowledge this as a risk, and then work out how we’re going to work around it.
The most significant risk, in my view, is that we know some work is being done on what the decision-making structures within the States should look like, during this immediate crisis and perhaps beyond. Those proposals haven’t come to the States yet, and we don’t know when they will. But it is reasonable to believe that they would result in power being consolidated in a small number of hands for a prolonged period of time – certainly, the conversation among some States Members has been about the need for a ‘controlling committee’ such as Guernsey had during the Occupation.
In my view, if we know that proposals like this could come over the horizon at any moment, it is all the more important to ensure that we keep the extension of the States’ term to the shortest length possible. However good and wise we are – and the people leading us through this challenge right now are among the best – when we hold power, it is challenge and scrutiny which keep us honest. If anyone is going to propose that normal functions of the States should be taken over by a small cabinet for the foreseeable future, then it is all the more important to keep that period limited to the crisis itself, and not beyond.
Isn’t this all just because you’re ready to go?
Ok, fair question. Anyone who has spoken to me over the past four years knows I’m only here for one term, and my friends will know I was quite ready for that to be finished! What I said above about ‘personal and professional temptations’ clouding our judgment is at least as true of me as it is of anyone else.
But, no. If the States decides to extend its term, I will stay and try to serve Guernsey faithfully, just as I have always tried to do. However, I have form (I hope) on being a defender of civil liberties within the States, and I see this as a continuation of that. Simply – I don’t believe that Guernsey is served well if we depart too quickly from the core principles of democracy: above all, that no sitting government should seek to extend its own term. Every step we take away from that, we must take with extreme caution, and with every check and balance in place.
Since Deputy Le Tocq is leading the P&R amendment, I’ll express it in terms I learnt from my religious upbringing, which I know will resonate with him. We need rules to maintain good habits, to keep ourselves good despite the worst of our nature. Deputy Le Tocq has spoken about tithing before – the biblical practice of giving away a tenth of your income, however great or small it may be. It is a rule that forces a habit – the habit of being generous even when your personal circumstances might otherwise push you to be cautious or even miserly.
Political term limits are, likewise, a rule that force a habit – the habit of handing over power, even when we feel our circumstances call for continuity or even stasis. The habit of checking in with the people who trusted us to lead, to ask whether they still trust us, or whether our response has departed too far from what they hope for in their leaders. It is a rule that, once broken, is very difficult to repair. So we must hold ourselves accountable, and make sure that the bar for breaking it is as high as possible, and the consequences of breaking it are as contained as possible.
Keeping the public safe – from a foe that is not political – is the only legitimate reason for delaying the Election. As soon as the Election can be safely held, it must be. We must continue to work towards as short a delay as possible. And we must be wise – and above all, cautious – about what we do with the extra time we gain from any such delay.