Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Why I have not made a submission to the electoral commission

I have been mulling making a submission to the electoral commission.  Thirty years ago I was very active in the campaign for fair votes in the  UK , and I have maintained an interest in electoral and representative systems ever since.  Of course I could just write in with my own personal  thoughts on what my ideal system would look like, but I do not think that is really the point here. I could equally write about the solution I think would make some meaningful and effective changes, without moving too far from the current system - a solution that might gain a degree of support. But the more I have thought of it, the more I have come to the conclusion that my difficulty in  formulating a submission is rooted in the flawed nature of the commission and its remit,and the expectation of what it can deliver.

An independent electoral commission was proposed by the then deputy for St Mary because the States had shown itself repeatedly to be incapable of making meaningful reforms of any consequence on its own account.  In rejecting proper independence and making half the members of the commission States members, that commission risks sinking straight back into that mire.  Its outcome will have to go to be debated by the States before possibly going to a referendum, thereby ensuring the body that caused the problem yet again has the opportunity to fully mess it up. 

Related to that last point, and one that caused me initially to be unable to formulate a submission, is the lack of formalised criteria for success of the commissions work.  There is, I think, an implicit one that it has to be acceptable to the States.  That at least was a key reason for the  States decision to remove the proper independence of the commission. How should I know if my submssion should be my personal preference, or a pragmatic proposal to make useful advance, if there are no criteria or fundamental principles to apply?  The Reform Jersey campaign have done well here in laying out the key  principles that  they believe are required, based broadly on a theme of fair and equal votes and representation for all. 

Having read some of the previous States debates, there will surely be a section in the assembly pressing for 'efficiency' and 'effectiveness' as the guiding criteria.  Clearly the most efficient and effective govenrment system is one where there is no discussion or dissent.  I prefer a diversity of views, rational debate and open discussion.  Yes, there is a price to pay, but this is the model by which science has advanced, opens the possibility of better quality decisions and policies for having been well examined and scrutinised from a variety of  perspectives and criteria.  I shall return to the issue of scrutiny later.

One of the disappointing aspect for me is how little the principles of subsidiarity and accountability have surfaced in the debate so far.  These would come some way above efficiency and effectiveness in importance for me and they also complicate the thinking behind that other guiding principle behind the Reform Jersey group.   Looking at equality of representation of fairness of votes the obvious conclusion is that something has to be done about the connétables.  Subsidiarity would have power exercised at the lowest level possible.  In Jersey that means the parish, headed of course by the connetable. When we look at accountability, the only States members that actually have to face their electorate fairly regularly and can be questioned by their electors about their States activity are the connetables. In fact any 4 electors of a parish can lay a requête to have a parish meeting to discuss a matter and if so desired instruct the connetable accordingly.  It is true such mechanisms are seldom used in that manner, but it is a useful part of the democratic armoury.  Of course it is not necessary to have  the connetables in the States to have these facilities.  What I would argue is that it would be desirable  if all States members could be similarly accountable.  It is workable in single member constituencies, such as we currently have for connétables, but it is unclear how this might be implemented in multimember constituencies.

The issue of constituency size and nature has arisen and needs some comment. Clearly with their disparate number of electors, it is not possible to have equality of representation, and the same number of votes per elector, if constituencies are based on single parishes.The options therefore are to have parishes combined into superconstituencies, to have a single island wide constituency, or, seldom discussed, have constituencies smaller than a parish.

Senators currently are elected on an all island vote - a single constituency. Some advantages are apparent. People are only elected on some widespread support for their  policies (in theory at least), and there is no issue of fudging constituency boundaries for electoral advantage. There are concerns too.  Most importantly we do not use a proportional election system, so that minority support can be sufficient to get people elected, and those elected are more likely to be of a single political view rather than a diversity. Superconstituencies have the same concern regarding a proportional voting system.  There is also a problem of senatorial  hustings in that speeches are so short and questions so few that issues cannot be debated or a whole island programme spelled out.  Many commentators have ruled  out  a single island constituency as impractical from the view of hustings. However as the organisation of  hustings is  properly the concern of the candidates, and not part of the election law (except perhaps as relates to expenses), this isn't a valid objection to an all island remit.

A related issue to constituency size is that of the size of the assembly.   As alluded to above re senators, there is an aspect here that concerns itself with pragmatic  mechanics, rather than any higher principles. Reducing the numbers saves some money and may lead to faster decision making.  But it also reduces the diversity of opinion that can be represented, and if the reduction is more than a handful would lead a set where more were in government as ministers and assistant minister than are outside. It is a perfectly good argument on representation grounds that as the population has grown the number of representatives should also have grown to enable better access, giving a wider choice of members for the assembly and to select as ministers. Again without any guiding principles or aims to the commission's work, we have no means to determine what options here are appropriate.

Unfortunately the States split the considration of the mechanics of government (ministers scrutiny etc) so that is being handled through PPC. Scrutiny is a critical role. In a party system it arises by opposition, and someone effective in scrutiny in opposition could find themselves a minister if their party attained power. In a non party system, taking an effective scrutiny role is more likely to result in no future ministerial role.  Jersey's current set up does not encourage robust scrutiny.  Given the interaction between factors being dealt with by the two bodies this seems to me to have been a daft decision.  Perhaps it is fitting - a testament to the  historical ability of the States to make concurrently inconsistent and self contradictory decisions.

In truth, even if the commission were to come up with some wide ranging changes that met the concerns of Reform Jersey and were not butchered by the States, and were approved in a referendum, would anything substantive change?  Would we still not have policies like the energy white paper, 6 years in the  waiting and still not delivered? Would we still not have the  situation like the town park, over ten years between agreeing and actually doing anything about it?  Would we end the prevarication and watering down of the terms of reference of the committee of inquiry into child abuse? Would Jersey be prepared to make the changes in society necessary to tackle climate change, and prepare for the consequence of a world without cheap fossil fuels? I doubt it because these things are not so much dependent on the structure or representation in the assembly. It has already voted for them in some measure, what they fear to do is implement them.  No amount of structural tinkering will fill that political leadership vacuum. What is needed just as much is a change in mindset.


  1. Just a few points. A Parish meeting can be called by only 4 electors, but it cannot instruct the Constable to act in any particular way. When such a meeting was called recently in St Clement, there was panic among “La Police” and officials, with long speeches about Constables being representatives not mandataires. In other words the Constable cannot be bound by any collectivity.

    An island wide election for all States Members is attractive, but in practice unworkable. Electors often do not use more than four votes. If they had forty votes potentially to cast the outcome would be completely random, especially on a first past the post electoral system.

    Larger super constituencies have the advantages in that it will eliminate “pocket boroughs”, that is to say those that do not have elections at all or end up with an entrenched individual returned time and again.

    With 60% voter abstention, nothing is going to change in a progressive manner. The same government is going to be in place whatever. Only when those non voters in the urban areas realise their interests are suffering as a consequence, will they understand that indifference to politics is not an option.

    “It's been a long, a long time coming
    But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will”


  2. Thanks for your comments Sam.
    There may be an argument for not being able to instruct a constable on how to vote in the States, but an assembly or parish meeting can make any lawful decision it desires. See the posting at http://st-ouennais.livejournal.com/158958.html for an example. The assembly changed the connetable's budget proposal. If you read the history of the States, and the role of constables, and why we have a period of proposals being lodged au Greffe, you wil see it is to enable the connetable to consult with parishoners and acton theri behalf! The problem is that people have forgotten their rights, and that there is, that I am aware, no recourse should a connetable act contrary to the instruction of an assembly or parish meeting.

    Your comment on the mechanics I have heard before. Of course we do not have to elect 40 at the same time. Have an annual election day - every one knows when it is - and elect a quarter each time for a 4 year term. Not far from the numbers we have now for senator elections. The point I wanted to get across in my piece is that we are discounting valid options on spurious mechanics grounds , assuming the mechanics cannot be changed. They can.

    Superconstituences can work too, but you need proportional voting for it to be at all fair. The down side is people are even more removed from their representative than in snaller constituencies (a lesser problem than the island wide mandate perhaps). Again I raise the issues of micro constituences to highlight the way perfectly plausible options have been all but discounted without debate or detailed consideration.

    The abstention rate is a crucial point. A turnout if less than 50% is failure to my mind, tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the whole system. I like that phrase: indifference to politics is not an option.

  3. I think you should submit this blog to the electoral commission so these defects are on record.

  4. I think you should send this to the EC so it is on record.