On the 24th April, islanders will have the chance to vote in a referendum to change our system of government. This is a once in a lifetime chance to have your say and demand a fair and equal voting system for all islanders so that we can get a government that truly reflects the views of the people, and is not just decided by a minority.
Why we need change -
The current make up of the States of Jersey remains mostly unchanged since the last round of reforms in 1947. After years of bloody war across the planet the mood in Britain and her territories was for a more equal and democratic society. In Jersey, after 5 years of Nazi occupation, the island needed a reinvigorated democratic system to tackle the post-war problems that the Jersey faced.
This meant removing many of the unelected members of the States and replacing them with new types of member, and attempting to address some of the inequalities in the distribution of States Members.
The UK Privy Council proposed a States of Jersey made up of Senators representing the whole island and Deputies to represent the Parishes and (in the more populous Parishes) districts. With some reservations, the Privy Council allowed for the retention of the Constables, as a link to the past, despite their not being directly elected to the States, but elected to administer the Parishes instead.
For 1947, this system was one that would suffice, though the Jersey Democratic Movement at the time did campaign for a more representative system.
But Jersey and the wider world is now a totally different place to what it was in 1947.
In 1947 Jersey had a population of around 55,000 people. It is now 97,000. Jersey's economy was mostly based on agriculture and tourism. It is now a world renown finance centre providing services to people all around the world.
But most importantly, in 1947, Jersey's government had a total expenditure of only £2.9m. To administer this, the States only had to meet for once a morning every 2 weeks. Now the States of Jersey spends closer to £700m a year and so each politician is required to spend much more time involved in making sure that money is spent properly, scrutinising the government and promoting Jersey internationally. Being a politician in Jersey is now a full time job, and we need a system that allows only the best and brightest into government. But they must not only be the best and brightest, they must share the values of the people of Jersey so that they carry out their job in a way that we can all be content with.
It is clear that an electoral system that was made in 1947 is no longer appropriate for the modern day and needs to be totally overhauled to be fit for the 21st Century.
It is not right nor democratic in the modern day that St Mary has one States Member for every 670 voters, whereas St Helier has one for every 2,444 voters.
The current system is broken, it is not fit for purpose, and it is fundamentally undemocratic. Of the reform options, Option C represents virtually no change, and presents us with virtually no progress whatsoever. Jersey needs something more drastic.
The Reform Options -
Option A - 42 Deputies elected in 6 large districts of similar population. Each district elects 7 members and each voter has 7 votes.
Option B - 30 Deputies elected in 6 large districts of similar population. Each district elects 5 members and each voter has 5 votes. Plus the 12 Parish Constables.
Option C - 8 Senators elected by the whole island. 29 Deputies elected in either Parishes or small districts, some single member, some multi-member. Plus the 12 Parish Constables.
5 Good Reasons for Voting for Option A -
- Option A is by far the most democratic option being offered.
- Option A will give all islanders the same number of votes and those votes will be worth the same.
- Option A will not allow any member to be elected uncontested, or with just a few hundred votes.
- Option A will allow the Parishes to have a dedicated head who is not distracted with States work.
- Option A is the simplest and fairest option.
Option A is the only option being offered for reform that fits in with all the democratic principles you would expect a system to encompass.
In the 21st Century it is not right that unelected people help make the laws of this island. It is not right that some States Members get 10s of thousands of votes, whereas some only get a few hundred. It is not right that depending on where you live, you might have more votes than someone else. Option A is the only system that will fix all of these problems. Options B and C will do nothing to address this.
Under Option A, every voter will have the same number of votes, every States Member will represent the same number of people, and the system will be simple, fair and equal across the board.
Option A is a modern and dynamic system that is truly fit for the 21st Century in Jersey.
Opponents of Option A say it is too radical or revolutionary. But what is so radical or revolutionary about the idea of all voters being equal? That is not radical, that is common sense! Any electoral system that treats some voters as more equal than others is not fit for purpose. What is radical is saying that islanders do not deserve an equal say in how their island is run. That is radical because it is such a bizarre idea in what purports to be a democracy.
They also say that Option A will diminish the Parish system. But how can it possibly diminish the Parishes to allow the heads of the Parishes to remain focused on their parochial duties, rather than in the States? It does not add up.
Deputies for the States and Constables for the Parishes. Two streams of administration flowing alongside each other, but not intertwining. Both head in the same direction together, but should one stream become polluted, it would not poison the other.
5 Good Reasons Not to Vote for Option B -
- Option B is the least democratic of all 3 options.
- Option B gives you fewer votes than Option A.
- Option B risks damaging the Parishes by making the Constables dedicate more time to the States.
- Option B is not compliant with the Venice Commission rules on good electoral practices.
- Option B makes the current problem of voter equity even worse than it is now.
Here is what the Chairman of the Electoral Commission Senator Sir Philip Bailhache has to say about Option B -
"Reform Option B creates greater voter inequity than we have at the moment."
Option B creates a perverse situation where islanders will not have a fair and equal say in how their island is run. Whilst the elections for Deputies on their own will be democratic, the inclusion of the Constables in the States undoes that and creates a system that is more unfair and unequal than what we have now.
The Constable of St Helier has an electorate 20 times the size of the electorate of St Mary, yet both Constables have the same voting power when they vote in the States. That is neither fair not appropriate in the 21st Century.
Since 1999 over 70% of Constable elections have been uncontested. It is not right that people can make our laws and extort a significant pay package from the taxpayer without having to fight a rigorous election.
On top of this, Option B risks doing serious damage to our important Parish system. As it stands, the Constables primary duties are in their Parishes and so they are far less likely to become ministers. When they have been perceived as dedicating too much time to the States, the parishioners often show them their discontent at the next election. But in a reduced States Assembly as in Option B, to maintain a good quality of government, the Constables will have to become more active in their States role. This can only possibly happen at the expense of their Parishes. We will have a situation where either the Parishes are neglected by the Constables, or the States is struggling to get by with only 30 active Deputies.
This is not good for democracy, efficiency or good government.
If we want good results from our government, we should have 42 members who are dedicated solely to the job of running the island as a whole. If the electorate see a particular Constable who they believe is capable of doing both jobs, they can elect them as a Deputy too under Option A. But they would not be forced to do both jobs if they did not want to, or if their electorate did not think they were appropriate to do both. That is the most democratic and sensible way to solve the Constable conundrum.
Equal Votes -
It is a fundamental part of democracy that each person should have an equal opportunity to have their voice heard. This is why we have protected rights for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but in Jersey we do not have equal rights when it comes to our electoral system. Some have more votes than others and some have votes that are worth different amounts. We cannot claim to be truly democratic unless we all have an equal vote.
This principle is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and further defined in the Venice Commission's Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters. Aside from it being the morally right thing to do, it is also arguably the legally right thing to do, and any future electoral system that breaches this principle of "equal votes" could well be challenged by the Privy Council or the European Court of Human Rights.
But this need not happen if the people of Jersey stand to be counted and demand a fair and equal say in our government for all islanders, no matter where they live in Jersey.
There has always been a struggle for equal votes in Jersey. The voices of dissent did not start around the time of Clothier, nor by the JDM in 1948, nor even in the 1880s when the residents of St Helier petitioned the Queen for more representation. This began on the 28th September 1769 when hundreds of ordinary islanders rose up in the Royal Square in protest against a corrupt government at a time when to do so was a capital offence. It was the reforms that succeeded this event that sowed the seeds for democracy in Jersey, but the journey is not yet complete and will never be complete so long as islanders are not equal.
History shows us that the direction of progress is towards more democracy, not less. Option B is that step backwards, Option A takes us forwards.
Option A, toujours en avant!