By Richard Digard
YOU know things are bad when even former Guernsey chief minister Gavin St Pier says he’s beginning to understand why people are backing away from political engagement and giving up on voting in general elections. There are, as he wrote here the other week, a number of reasons for that.
The fundamental one for me, however – which has been a while in the making – is very simple. Deputies have stopped representing us. They’re in it for themselves. I don’t mean that in a financial sense, although the way-above-median earnings remuneration is a driver for some, but in the sense that they impose their ambitions and objectives on the rest of us.
Saving the planet, supporting minority groups and making Jersey ‘world class’ in weird, unnecessary and costly ways may be laudable things in themselves but they don’t put an affordable roof over the heads of ordinary Islanders, leave them with more money in their pockets at the end of the week or reduce the burden of state on their shoulders.
It’s the same in Guernsey. Since politics has become an (allegedly) full-time, comparatively well-rewarded occupation, Deputies have drifted away from caring about individuals as individuals and turned instead to concepts: diversity, inclusion and equality.
These are excellent ambitions and rightly taken seriously. But they have – or add – value only if the individual sees the benefit of the actions taken and Deputies never ask that now, do they? You know, check to see if things really have improved after all their fine words.
Put it another way. Who do you instinctively see as a wo/man of the people today? A champion of the underdog, someone who stands up for the man or woman in the street and truly understands their needs and concerns?
We lost our people of the people in Guernsey years ago. About the same time as being ‘in government’ became more important – and certainly more appealing – than representing constituents. No more attending pensioner meetings in draughty church halls to get real-world insight into what it means to be old, alone and poor when you can instead sit in a modern office and be briefed by £120,000-a-year civil servants in open-neck shirts.
In case you fear I’m more than usually splenetic on this, the evidence is there to back me up. Your voter turnout figures are alarmingly low and subject to various levels of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association scrutiny and feedback.
As a result of that and other work, we know that the biggest single reason for not voting before the latest set of reforms for June’s general election was difficulty in getting to a polling station. However, various issues with candidates accounted for nearly a third of the reasons why people didn’t vote, and so were way more important.
Ask non-voters what would turn them on in an electoral sense and the answer was swift and overwhelming: for 84% of respondents, it was simply ‘candidates who better represent my values and the things that are important to me’. Couldn’t be clearer, could it?
To reinforce my view that disengagement is all about representation, a further 84% were also blunt about what would get them to vote: ‘Evidence that election representatives can make a real difference in the community.’
In fairness to the many States Members who are diligent and committed, running the Island is far more complex, difficult and involved than even 20 years ago. But voters do not see the debacle over the new hospital as sensible, prudent use of their money or improving their lives. For them it’s further evidence, sadly, of Deputies really not knowing what they’re doing.
That it was a different States that set the project in motion is irrelevant. Taxpayers do not make that distinction. For them, this is a system of government where bureaucrats can allegedly do a former firefighter out of his legitimate pension entitlement, ignore a watchdog especially created to protect ordinary Islanders and escape censure.
Where were the howls of protest from the elected wo/men of the people demanding justice, fairness and equity? Where was the individual representation?
Voters in Guernsey got engaged in October 2018 to take part in a referendum where a scant 53% decided to end what was basically parish-based voting and instead elect all Deputies on the basis of a single, islandwide district. With the benefit of hindsight, many now see that as a mistake.
Selecting 38 Deputies from a field of 119 largely unknown candidates in the absence of what you might call proper political parties has produced some unwelcome and unexpected side-effects that have not exactly enhanced democratic debate.
By contrast, Jersey has ended its element of an Islandwide mandate by scrapping the Senatorial class but has lost the parish link by creating nine super-constituencies instead. Whether this means much for long-suffering Jersey folk who feel disenfranchised remains to be seen, I guess, but it basically comes down to how Deputies see their role.
In each island, the codes of conduct are specific. To ‘act in the public interest and to represent the interests of those who they have been elected to serve conscientiously’ in Guernsey; and ‘to act in the interests of the people of Jersey and of the States’ in this Island.
Ultimately, I suppose, we now have the situation where those in power do what they think is right for the Island, even though a sizeable number of the community – usually, I’d hazard, the less well off – think it’s not just wrong for them, but that their views haven’t even been considered.
And that’s the real reason people have given up on politics. What we have now is far too comfortable for the comfortably off and those whose lives need to be improved don’t vote and can safely be ignored by Deputies who care more about concepts than they do individuals.