Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Referendum Reflections

Apologies for not blogging sooner after the referendum. As well as having been busy with various other things, it was important to take a step back to consider and evaluate things as well as speak to various other parties to work out what was the best position to take from now on.

Having invested as much time as I had in the Option A campaign, I found myself waking up on the morning after the result was announced and felt surprisingly fine about it. I had a few phone calls from friends and family members to commiserate me, but I could only tell them that it wasn't necessary because of how good about the whole thing I actually felt.

I'm incredibly proud of the campaign we ran. Despite the slander attempts by those with no intelligent argument to make, we had genuinely been a broad coalition of people from all backgrounds and all political persuasions. We were the group that had virtually no States Members taking part (Deputy Tadier was the one exception). We were the only group with a dedicated group of young people out canvassing. We were the only group that actively engaged with the Portuguese and Polish communities.

There are too many specific names to mention for thank you's, so I won't attempt to do so here. But Christine Vibert who was our General Secretary did a fantastic job throughout and has to be commended for working as hard as she did and for keeping us well organised.

Dirty tactics from Option B

Option A won the intellectual argument hands down. This was a debate on democracy and we sometimes went through entire debates in which the Option B representatives did not even use the word "democracy" once. I sometimes sat with a notepad ready to count, and didn't have to get my pen out once. Our argument was based on democratic principle and fairness, and we were lucky by the fact we had facts on our side.

For Option B it was all about creating a "leaner, fitter States", as if the problem of institutional unfairness in our current system did not exist. They totally missed the whole point of this exercise and instead based it on the unprovable allegation that somehow the Parishes will die if we democratise the States of Jersey.

Throughout the campaign I witnessed an Option B group that was simply incapable of being truthful when trying to get votes.

This stretched from blatant lies from Option B supporters Ben Shenton and Deputy Moore, who claimed that Option B was compatible with the Venice Commission (for goodness sake, even Senator Bailhache admitted it wasn't!), to scaremongering from Philip Ozouf at the gates of St Saviours Parish Hall on voting day.

On voting day I was having a chat with some voters outside the parish hall who just wanted to ask a couple of questions about what would happen to the role of the Constable if they weren't in the States, would they get paid and would their rates bills go up. So I rehearsed the usual arguments about it being an honorary position, the Parishes could pay if they want, but rates don't have to rise because it could come out of existing budgets etc etc, before Philip Ozouf interrupted to say "well yes, OF COURSE your rates will go up!" pretty definitively given that there is not a shred of evidence to back it up, and when I attempted to interject to put forward some evidence to the contrary, I was interrupted with "Mr Mézec, how many years experience do you have in the honorary system?", to which I replied "none Philip, I'm 22 years old, I have no experience in anything, but that was pretty patronising." That is the sort of standard of argument that the democrats had to put up with.

I said towards the end of the campaign that I had found Philip Ozouf had been a poison on the whole campaign because of his lies and I stand by that. At least Senator Bailhache had the decency to admit that Option B was less democratic than what we currently have and didn't try and mislead people by coming up with some ridiculous spin.

He claimed that he was a democrat and that Option B was democratic because of the fair distribution of Deputies seats, completely ignoring that the good that creating districts did was totally undone by the inclusion of the Constables, and that this was a matter of indisputable fact. He knew this, but said it anyway because it sounded credible coming from him and would get a few extra votes.

His principle argument against Option A was that the candidates who won in 6th and 7th place would not have much legitimacy because currently in the Senatorial elections people don't use all of their votes. This totally ignored the fact that we are swapping to the STV system of voting, so actually all candidates elected will be legitimate. He knew this, but pursued his line of argument regardless.

When you combine all of this with the fact that every household was sent a booklet that said reform was being proposed guided by 4 principles of democracy, even though one of those reform options didn't encompass a single one of those principles, I don't think it is too strong to say that the public of Jersey were absolutely shafted by those supporting Option B, who lied and misled the public at every point.

A few things

Now that the campaign is over and the vote has been done, there are things I can say that I wouldn't have said during the campaign for fear of demotivating potential voters.

The first is that as a matter of principle, I think referendums are totally unnecessary on clear cut objective matters of democracy. In fact they can be inhibitory.

Take a look at Switzerland for example. This is a country that is often cited as a great example of direct democracy. But a little known fact is that Switzerland didn't eradicate electoral discrimination on the basis of gender until 1991! The reason was that any changes to the rules on who could vote had to be approved by public referendums, in which only men could vote, who rejected extending the franchise to women on several occasions. This is evidence that referendums are not the best mechanism for advancing democratic principle.

It is currently Labour Party policy to hold a referendum on democratising the House of Lords... Why? What a waste of time and money. Just do it, there is no need for a referendum on something so objectively better. Same goes for adopting proportional representation.

Guernsey has a fair democratic system that was a significant overhaul from what they had before, but they had no referendum to implement it because it was seen as just common sense.

After Jersey had the Clothier Report, it should have just all been implemented and we should never have gone down this road that led to a referendum.

The second point is that I always knew that Option A would lose the referendum. Those with power are terrified of losing that power and it was clear that those in power in Jersey would not have allowed Option A to even be on the ballot if they weren't confident of winning. It was just a question of how badly, and what arguments would be used in the campaign. Depending on where in the island I was, my view on what would happen fluctuated. When debating in St Helier or speaking to people on the streets, it felt like Option A could well win, but on the day of the referendum I actually was worried that we could be seriously embarrassed in some Parishes and maybe even end up coming last.

You can imagine my delight when there was only a couple of hundred votes between A and B in the first round and that we won in my home Parish (was glad that all my leafleting in the rain wasn't wasted!).

The third point is that I never truly believed that Option A was the end game for reform in Jersey. I didn't like the idea of 42 members and would much rather have had 48 members (though not because of the Troy Rule which I knew would be safe under 42 members, but because I thought constituency work would suffer), and the first thing I would have done after Option A was passed would have been to argue for more members. But I saw winning the principle of equal votes as being of such paramount importance that it had to be fought as a battle on it's own.

I've also moved to the view that I didn't previously hold, that there is no longer any excuse whatsoever for the Chief Minister to not be elected directly by the public of Jersey. With Senators gone and further powers for the Chief Minister being proposed, the connection between power and the ballot box is too far away for me to think that the position holds any legitimacy any more. Campaigning for a public vote on who becomes Chief Minister will be one of the next steps to be taken in the next few years.

The final point is that the referendum process itself was always totally flawed, to the point where frankly the whole thing was pretty absurd.

The fact there were no spending limits or requirements to publish accounts from the campaign groups was totally unacceptable, the registration process was totally inadequate, and the schools engagement with young people was utterly appalling.

PPC had 2 years notice to prepare for the referendum and they fundamentally failed. Lessons need to be learnt from this process.

If we ever end up having a referendum on whether Jersey becomes an independent country or not (which I am totally against) then we cannot have it under the same framework we have now.

Analysing the results

The first thing to say was that the results in the first round were incredibly close. Only 223 votes between Option's A and B in the first round show how divided those that bothered to vote were.

That being said, the number that did choose to vote was pitiful. 26.24% of the registered electorate is appalling.

Of those that did vote, only 48.8% voted for Option B (after 2nd preference votes had been counted), meaning only 12.81% of the registered electorate backed it.

Also notable is how low the turnout was especially in St Helier (only 16.91%), but those that did vote were overwhelmingly in favour of the option that came 2nd.

All referendums end up with a result because they are prescribed rules to make sure of it, but more important than the result is the answer. It is important to distinguish between a "result" and an "answer" for they are different things.

A referendum will always have a result, with one option beating another, but there is a difference between a result on a high turnout with a large majority in favour of one option, compared to a low turnout with a marginal difference. The first can easily be spun into a public endorsement, the latter cannot.

Jersey's referendum was the latter.

There is no way that anyone can spin this referendum result into having been an answer to the public desire for a particular electoral system. It is nothing but a rejection of it all (and I include Option A in that, which I accept is now dead).

Moving forward

Throughout the campaign when faced with the illogical proposition that if Option B won "it would be democratic", I often replied by saying that if there had been a referendum on taking the vote away from left-handed people that was won, it wouldn't be democratic just because it had been endorsed in a vote.

Why? Because there is such a thing as unqualified and inalienable human rights. One of those is equality before the law and our right to take part in a free and fair democratic system. No one can take those rights away, especially not one part of the electorate. An electoral system that does not give everyone an equal vote is illegitimate and the majority have no right whatsoever to vote to take away the inalienable rights of other people.

It is on that basis that I consistently said that I would not accept a referendum victory for Option B as being legitimate. I said this before Option B won, so I can't be accused of kicking my toys out of the pram.

Option B is an undemocratic system that discriminates against islanders depending on where they live. That is unacceptable, and it certainly is not legitimised by our sad excuse of a referendum in which tiny number of islanders endorsed it.

The obvious criticism that will be made of me here will be "oh well, you wouldn't be saying that if Option A had won", and the honest answer to that is, yes, quite right I wouldn't.

Option A was a fair and democratic system that had no further complications to consider. Frankly, if we had a States made up of democrats, they wouldn't have bothered with the referendum and would have just passed it, like they were good enough to do in Guernsey. Instead we have the result of politicians with no democratic tradition and an instinct for self-serving protectionism.

The referendum has given no clear endorsement for the States to pursue implementing a system that is nothing more than an unapologetic, old-fashioned gerrymandering of the highest order.

It is on this basis that Option B should not become law in Jersey and all democrats should oppose it's introduction.

A blog post will follow to explain how opposition can be mounted and justified.