Thursday, 25 February 2016

Post-People's Park Reflections

I had expected Tuesday to be a fairly ordinary day in the States Assembly. Okay, we had a pretty controversial item on the agenda for debate, but I suspected the vote wouldn't happen until the next day after hours of painful debate, which happens from time to time.

Question time was pretty standard, but quite enjoyable too. I was on fire (if I do say so myself) having researched the night before for parts of hansard which showed the Treasury and Infrastructure Ministers having either U-turned on their policies since the election or, worse, having outright lied about those policies in the first place. The Health Minister clearly got rattled by one of my questions which he refused to answer, claiming it was a hypothetical question, despite the presiding officer confirming that the question was perfectly in order.

Whilst getting stuck into the ministers I barely even noticed that there were prolonged periods of time where the senators benches was more or less empty as all the ministers left the chamber. I guess I just assumed that they had drunk a few too many cups of tea during their pre-States meeting/ prayer/ meditation (or whatever it is they get up to beforehand) and had synchronised their comfort breaks.

Little did I know that the Council of Ministers was having emergency meetings as they knew they were dealing with a mutiny on their hands.

Just as the debate on People's Park was due to begin and hundreds of Islanders were gathering in the Royal Square the Health Minister Senator Andrew green stood up (looking damn miserable it has to be said) and announced that the government had decided to take People's Park off the shortlist of potential sites for the new hospital.

Victory for the people, victory for democracy and victory for Jersey!

I didn't stick around to hear the rest of his statement. I ran straight outside to the square and got the crowds attention for Deputy Hilton to announce the decision to the public.

Huge cheers, hundreds of hugs and handshakes and I'm pretty sure I saw a few tears too.

On the 150th anniversary of Francois Godfrey gifting People's Park to the people of St Helier, we won the battle to keep the park free for the people to enjoy for generations to come.

There has been a lot of analysis of this move over the past few days and pretty much all of it has been totally wrong, so I'm going to try to set the record straight.

The first myth to debunk is that "the government finally listened to the people."

It would be nice to believe this, but it simply isn't true.

The hansard for question time will show that the Council of Ministers was determined to go ahead opposing the campaign to save People's Park right up until the last minute.

By the time the States was in session all of the lobbying from the public was finished. They were continuing to justify their position throughout the morning.

What provoked them to change their stance was a series of emails from various States Members informing the ministers that they had changed their minds and decided to back the campaign.

The Council of Ministers themselves ignored the public. The only people they listened to were the members who were usually loyal. They did the maths and realised they were going to lose the vote.

Better to back down rather than face the embarrassment of losing.

The evidence of this is the sheer indignation in every nuance of Andrew Green's manner since this happened. He hasn't backed down with dignity in my view. He deserves the credit for taking the right decision in the end, but his leadership is damaged irreparably.

The government did not listen to the public. It was the backbenchers, a handful of Constables and a handful of assistant ministers who listened to the public and forced the government to change their position.

The next myth is one which is paradoxically being propagated by the mainstream media and it is that "a vocal minority has denied a choice the silent majority."

I mean, honestly, get real.

This campaign was representative of the public and all the evidence both statistical and anecdotal proves it.

Yes, I'm sure there are some people who disagreed. That's fine and that's democracy. But they were a tiny minority.

5,000 signatures for our petition is more than they'll get responses to the public consultation, I'm absolutely certain of that.

But how strange it is for the media to have turned so quickly after a few weeks of them being so supportive! You could always count on them to turn a huge victory for democracy into something to be negative and cynical about.

Lessons to be learnt

The key thing I have taken from this experience is that every single person who told us along the way "you're wasting your time", "it won't make a difference" or "they never listen anyway" was absolutely wrong.

The campaign made a huge difference and organised the most effective lobbying on a political for a very long time.

It was the emails, the phone calls and the conversations in the street that swung enough States Members to change their position that achieved this.

Those people who told us they agreed with us but wouldn't support us because they thought it was a waste of time were essentially the greatest allies the Council of Ministers could have hoped for. Our victory was despite these people and would have come quicker if they hadn't taken this totally counterproductive attitude.

This campaign showed what can be done when people come together (whatever side of the political spectrum they are on) to positively push forward on something that matters to people.

It worked and it can work again in the future.

I can only hope that this victory will have energised people and swept away the cynicism that plagues our political discourse.

Next time we ask for the public to get behind a new campaign for an important cause and we're told "what's the point, they never listen" we can say "they listened on People's Park".

Friday, 5 February 2016

Owen Jones and the 'Politics of Hope'

Last week the Guardian columnist, author and activist Owen Jones came to Jersey to give a talk at the Arts Centre on 'the Politics of Hope'.

The event was sold out with many people disappointed to not get tickets, and once Owen got into his stride it became very clear why.

Aside from being incredibly likeable and articulate, the message which Owen was here to spread is one which the people of Jersey have desperately needed to hear for a long time.

Jersey is a wonderful place with a beautiful environment and strong community spirit, yet we have been plagued by bad governments which have seen so much of our potential squandered.

Despite being one of the richest places in the world, we have rampant relative poverty. One third of pensioners live in relative low income, as do 58% of single-parent families. Over the past 5 years the poorest 1/5 of Islanders have seen their standard of living drop 17%. 

Financially, our government situation is a complete mess. We are facing a budget deficit of £145m because of government after government failing to make investments in education and health when they were needed, our social housing stock has been privatised after decades of neglect and, despite promises to the contrary, ordinary families are about to see their tax bill rise by between £1,000 to £2,000 (I'd like to be more specific on that figure, but even the government don't know what they're doing yet).

All of this happens whilst 70% of the electorate do not take part in the democratic process, boycotting elections and repeating the same old line "why bother voting, it won't change anything".

The Politics of Hope is about believing that we can do much better than this and that if you can tap into discontent and concentrate it's power into enthusiasm for a positive programme for change, then anything is possible.

It's about saying that one of the richest places in the world with some of the most sophisticated expertise and talent does not have to accept poverty as an inevitability and that we can and should look out for one another using the government as a positive tool to help create an environment in which anyone is able to achieve their potential, uninhibited by the circumstances of their birth and where we can together pursue our aspirations as a community.

Owen made the point that the current political status quo puts off ordinary people. Most people don't think in terms of left or right, they care about issues and how it affects their lives. Few politicians have been able to articulate their case in a way which genuinely inspires people.

This is how Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in America have been able to inspire so many people who were previously apolitical to get involved, because their authenticity and values count for so much more than what mainstream politics has considered normal for too long,

That is why Reform Jersey does not define itself as left-wing.

After all, what's left-wing about wanting everyone to pay a fair rate of tax? What's left-wing about saying people who do an honest day's work should be paid a fair wage? What's left-wing about saying our democratic process should be open and fair, allowing everyone to have an equal say on the future of their community?

Reform Jersey represents a progressive vision for an Island run on principles of fairness.

The real extremists in Jersey politics are the Council of Ministers.

They are pursuing an economic strategy which has been shown to be a total failure in literally every single example of it being used since the 1920s. That is utter madness. They have cut £10m from the budget which is ring-fenced to protect the most vulnerable people in society. They are threatening to sack hundreds of public sector workers described by their own £650 a day advisor to be the "best value for money" out of all of our workers, whilst creating new £120,000 a year management jobs.

As every month goes past and we receive more news about how the government is trying to shaft the public, whether it's the outrageous theft of People's Park (the clue is in the name for goodness sake!!), the cuts to support for pensioners or the sleaze which is now associated with collective responsibility, we are gaining more members and finding more people who have not been turned off by politics but who have been spurred in to fight even harder.

We may now have the most right-wing government we have ever had, but I firmly believe that it is also the most right-wing government we will ever have, because the next election will see a democratic upsurge against the status quo by those who have never voted before and by those who have been fooled for too long.

There is hope. We can and will change things.

Thank you so much to Owen Jones for his support and his inspirational words last week.