Saturday, 9 November 2013

Referendum/ Referendums/ Referenda... What on Earth is going on?

My interview on the BBC on Thursday, with Russell Labey as the BBC guest in-studio -

An Account of Reform Tuesday in the States of Jersey

I sat in the public gallery of the States Chamber on Tuesday to watch the reform debate in its entirety. I could have listened to it on the radio, but actually being there in the room you are able to pick up on things that aren't immediately obvious over the airwaves.

I sat through reform proposition after reform proposition being rejected by members in overwhelming numbers (the Constable of St Mary's proposition got only 3 votes, still more than it deserved). I sat through the Machiavellian antics of Senator Ozouf, who purposely deferred his proposition to make sure it would be the last one to be debated, at a date when hopefully more of his political allies would be present.

I was certainly impressed when Deputy Southern's proposition to adopt the Clothier reforms managed to get quite an impressive 16 votes. Albeit 10 short of the 26 it needed, I was certainly chuffed to be able to identify which States Members were the ones that actually want Clothier. There were certainly some surprises there, with Senator Paul Routier and Constable Mezbourian voting in favour, but they are most welcome comrades for this cause.

I had, perhaps naively, hoped that PPC's interim reform proposals may have been able to just secure enough votes, being as their proposition was the most modest, yet (according to the two professors) the 2nd most significant in making the system fairer. But that proposition too only gathered 16 votes.

At this point I was feeling rather glum that there wasn't going to be even the tiniest silver lining the massive grey cloud of reform.

As the States voted on part 2 of PPC's proposition, to hold a referendum on the Clothier reforms, I literally stopped concentrating. I could predict the result before it was read out. As the Bailiff began to say "the proposition is..." I muttered "rejected" under my breath as he said "adopted!". I couldn't believe my ears and, by the sounds of it, neither could the States Members.

Finally, 13 years after the report was first published, the States of Jersey had finally agreed to hold the referendum we should have been given in the first place.

One of those that voted for the referendum was the newly elected Constable of Grouville John Le Maistre. I had backed John Le Maistre in the last days of his by-election campaign on the basis that he had said at the hustings that he believed "fairness" was one of the criterion for any reform. After the States was over for the day, I had to approach him to shake his hand and thank him for how he voted. I was glad that he had stuck to the principle he had espoused in his election campaign.

But whilst still recovering from the shock of the States agreeing to hold a referendum on the Clothier recommendations, I lowered my guard and so when shortly afterwards the States then voted to hold a referendum on the position of the Constables, my heart sunk.

The Great Contradiction

Why, after just voting to hold a referendum on Clothier (which said "the Constables should not be automatically in the States") would you then need to ask a separate question on the Constables? Surely it is superfluous?

Imagine the ballot papers -

  1. Should the composition of the States of Jersey be reformed according to the recommendations found in the Clothier Report? Yes/ No.
  2. Should the Constables continue to remain as members of the States of Jersey? Yes/ No.

Spot the problem?

What if the answer to both questions results in a "yes" vote?

The questions are contradictory.

Not only does it pose that very difficult problem, but it also makes it impossible to run a proper referendum campaign if there is more than one question.

When there was Options A, B and C, we could easily form defined campaigning groups and adopt logos and posters that were easily identifiable with our causes.

With two referendum questions, both with yes/ no answers, we can't form a "yes" campaign, because it won't be distinguishable from the "yes" campaign for the other question.

The situation is a bit of a mess.

The Path Forward

The States has agreed in principle that these referendums must take place and they have both been stipulated to occur on the day of the general election next year (15th October).

It is now PPC's job to bring forward the draft legislation to actually officially put it into law that the referendum should happen.

They will be put in an awkward position having to reconcile the contradictory decision of the States on Tuesday. It is their duty to come forward with what the States have told them too, but the States have done a silly.

I would argue that the most sensible and logical thing for the States to do would be to just bring forward the question on Clothier, as it is by it's nature, also a referendum on the Constables.

But this will of course leave them wide open to criticism for ignoring the States decision (stupid though it was), and even open the doors to a motion of no confidence.

Then, the States will have to vote for the legislation, and it is entirely possible that even though they have agreed to hold a referendum, they could still vote against the enacting legislation. There were notable States Members who weren't in the States on Tuesday (Senator's Bailhache and Maclean, Deputies Baker and Power, all of whom show no particular regard for fairness in electoral reform). So the referendum is still not guaranteed to happen yet.

The Chairman of PPC, Deputy Jeremy Maçon, has said that he will be looking to stipulate that the referendum must have a 40% turnout for it to be considered by the States. Given that the referendum will be on the same day as the general election (and therefore 40% is reasonably likely). I have no problem with this, despite it being a bit unnecessary given that Jersey law doesn't recognise the principle of a "binding" referendum.

The Case for Clothier

Assuming, best case scenario, that the referendum goes ahead next year on election day, and it is a single question on the Clothier reforms, why should we vote for it?

I wholeheartedly backed Option A in the referendum in April, and I continue to believe in the principles behind it. I believe that everyone should have an equal vote, no matter what. I also believe that multi-member constituencies are good for both voters and candidates to make sure we get a parliament that is genuinely representative of the people, both politically and demographically.

But Clothier falls short of Option A in several regards, some of which are outlined in this blog -

Clothier will make all constituencies have at least two members (except St Mary which will just have one), which isn't exactly ideal. Where before if you lived in a rural Parish, you could vote for 14 States Members (1 Deputy, 1 Constable and 12 Senators), you will now only be able to vote in two members.

But the principle of equal votes comes before the preference of voting for a large number of the States Members. If in future some of the smaller Parishes grew aggrieved by the fact some in a St Helier district would be able to vote for up to 5 or 6 States Members when they could only vote for 2, they might eventually decide that for elections to the States, it could be worth joining some Parishes together to even out the numbers a bit. After a few elections of only being able to vote for one member, St Mary might propose joining up with St John and Trinity so that they could share 5 States Members and therefore get more votes. There could even be a referendum to do so, held just in those Parishes. After all, why not? It would be their right.

Until recently the Isle of Man had a Clothier-esque system, with all their MPs elected in small constituencies, with 1, 2 or 3 members. But they had a boundaries commission to decide how to alter the system so that all voters could have the same number of votes. That could be an example to follow.

Clothier is certainly a step in the right direction. Once the principle of equal votes is won, it will be unstoppable and will never be able to be taken away.

I also think it is worth saying now, that with the end of the island-wide mandate, I think there is no longer any excuse for the Chief Minister not to be elected by the public.

There should be a Parish election period, 6 weeks before the general election, in which all Constable elections are contested at the same time and the media will be able to give it a bit of hype and the island can focus on Parish issues (something which doesn't at all happen now). Then the general election begins. As soon as those elected take their seats, their first job should be to nominate candidates for Chief Minister. Candidates should require a decent amount of nominations (say maybe 20), but States Members should be allowed to nominate more than once. So there could be 2 or 3 candidates, who must then go round the 12 Parishes and face a public election one month after the general election. It would be presidential in it's style, but the public would be able to have a direct say in who leads the government and give a mandate to the vision and direction that they propose.

That's the vision for the future and we should be optimistic about it.

But of course, the most important part of having a referendum on the same day as the election is that it will force candidates to work with each other for the referendum campaign. Much like the previous referendum in which campaign groups worked very effectively.

A stepping stone to parties, one can only hope!


P.s. I have no idea whether to use "referendums" or "referenda". Google tells me that the former is for multiple ballots on the same issue, with the latter on different issues. It isn't clear whether reform is one issue, so you can call them "referendums" or if each individual aspect of reform counts as a separate issue, so "referenda" is the right one.


  1. Always good to debate with you, Sam. Though we were in complete agreement this time. One thing, the lady from the 'A' Team who was on earlier... in one of her attacks on me suggested without the 'C' campaign 'A' would have won and that we somehow scuppered your chances.
    The facts tell a different story. The vast majority of 'C' voters who expressed a second preference voted for 'B' - either that or or abstained. Second preferences for 'A' were minimal. So, if anything, the 'C' campaign denied Option 'B' a more convincing majority and for that I think we should all be grateful. You might want to enlighten her, I think she was called Jan or Jean... RL

  2. Not only does it pose that very difficult problem, but it also makes it impossible to run a proper referendum campaign if there is more than one question.

    It doesn't have to. Take a look at this, the Polish experience of 1946.

    1. James, I'm not entirely sure the Polish referenda are the best examples!

  3. its refreshing to hear you Sam- representing us islanders who yearn for true democracy !