Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Are two referendums better than one?

On Monday the Electoral Commission published it's interim report on electoral reform, which you can read here. They are also going to send copies to every household in the island. The public consultation is now back on for you to submit your views on what they have proposed. I encourage you all to do so, or attend one of their public meetings. I'm preparing a submission and will post it here when it is completed (though it will essentially just repeat the points I am making here).

The first point I want to make is that, in some ways, the recommendations is better than I could have expected, but there are still some issues that need to be addressed, particularly process. Much of what the campaign group Reform Jersey that I am involved with had been saying has been said to be accepted by the commission.

A brief summary of the recommendations are as follows -

  • Abolition of the position of Senator and the island wide constituency.
  • Island to be divided up into 6 super-constituencies, based on combining parishes (with St Helier split into two), with roughly equal populations.
  • The number of States Members to be 42.
  • Each elected on the same day for a 4 year term.
  • The issue of whether Constables remain in the States to be put to a public referendum.
  • Thus, the States would either be entirely the new Deputies, or 12 Constables and 30 Deputies.

The commission has further said that it is still considering the possibilities of adopting a transferable voting system and the possibility of an upper chamber.

The Principles

One major criticism that Reform Jersey had with the commission was it's apparent lack of guiding principles behind that reform. We said that any reform must be based on an idea of what "democracy" is and how the best way to practically form one in Jersey is, rather than just shifting things about to see if it works. A key moment in the public hearings was the interview with Daniel Wimberley who really took them to task over the issue and interrogated them on their strategy. The transcript can be read here.

Reform Jersey argued that any reform must have these three principles at it's core -

  1. Each voter should have the same number of votes.
  2. Each district should have the same population.
  3. The system should be simple and user friendly.

The first thing to note about the interim report is that they overtly state that these three principles were accepted. Including the most welcome addition of a fourth principle that said "A candidate should generally require a significant number of votes in order to be elected to the Assembly". Obviously this is something we welcome.

What I also noticed was this particular line "With thriving debate, and greater public participation, Jersey’s government will have a better claim to be founded upon the bedrock of popular consent."

This is the first time they have actually hinted on what the point of this whole thing is. You'd have thought with this as your supposed starting ground it would be very difficult to go wrong. But all is far from over yet and it is still possible for it all to go wrong.

Referendum v Referendums

Interestingly the commission have declined to make any decision on the Constables (which would have resulting in strong criticism from either side, no matter what) and said that it should be put to the public in a referendum.

Now, I am not scared of a referendum. I'm confident that in a fair contest, my side of the argument would win. But I do have real problems with this both on principle and practicality.

On the principle, the commission has laid out their guiding principles and they are simply incompatible with keeping the Constables. If the commission believes all districts should have the same population, they cannot also say keeping the Constables is acceptable. It appears that even Senator Bailhache is admitting that if the public chose the version of their recommendations that kept the Constables, it would be even less democratic than the system we have now. So why even offer it as an option?

To offer it for a direct vote also accepts the principle that these things should be decided by majority vote. Democracy isn't about just doing what the majority say, it's about much broader principles. If the majority decided that red haired people shouldn't be allowed to vote, even though that's a majority decision, it's not democratic, because it doesn't accept the principle of each person being equal. That is the crucial point. The Constables in the States is not democratic by objective standards.

But there are also the practical implications to wonder. I had always thought that the commission would come up with recommendations and that would be put to the people in a simple yes or no question like "do you agree with the Electoral Commissions findings?". Simple, no ambiguity and no room for interpretation.

The new proposal complicates things.

What happens now? Is there going to be two referendums? One for the Constable issue, the other for the rest of the proposals? Will there just be one referendum on the Constables and no option for the status quo? Or will there be one referendum but with three options?

All of these have problems.

If there are two referendums, what happens if the public vote to get rid of the Constables, but then vote against the remainder of the recommendations? Or if no one wants either option, so everyone stays at home instead of voting? Or if in the 3 option referendum, no option gets over 50%?

Any of these options will mean it is impossible to accurately interpret the will of the people. A complicated question means a complicated answer. If it isn't simple and straight forward, it will have no legitimacy and could even be open to legal challenge.

If the commission is truly committed to those principles it described, then it should not recommend another referendum. Just put the option without Constables to the people. That is the most effective way of solving this.

What was left out

The commission deliberately left out some issues that it is considering further.

The first of these was whether to swap from first past the post to a transferable voting system. As vocal I have been about my views on the Constables and democracy, at the end of the day, this issue really is just as important. The outcome of a first past the post election is almost always a legislature that does not accurately reflect the views of the population in a proportional way.

For a great argument in favour of STV check out former Senator Pierre Horsfall's submission to the Electoral Commission here.

The other thing they are considering is the use of an upper chamber to scrutinise legislation (as opposed to scrutinising policy). I've said before that I think it's a waste of time. If there are enough members in the main chamber, there is no need for another. That is where I may take issue at there only being 42 members. They say there should be fewer members, but to then suggest an upper house that would probably bring the number up seems to be contradictory.

What now?

It's clear that of the commissions two proposals, one of them is clearly a winner that would solve a huge amount of problems in Jerseys electoral system and is clearly far better than what we have now.

The option of 42 "Deputies" in super constituencies based on the Parishes isn't far off what Clothier recommended. I would prefer the constituencies were drawn up on population and kept up to date with an independent boundary commission, but what is being recommended is certainly tolerable. It's this option that we need to single out and demonstrate is clearly the better option.

One things for sure, regardless of all of this, I really am looking forward to getting stuck in with a proper public debate on the issue. This should be a big deal, being given a direct say on issues like this. There should be campaign groups, leafleting, knocking on doors, public debates, it's going to be great!

I'm really proud to be involved in such a positive campaign with Reform Jersey and glad that the principles we have argued for are being accepted.

Finally, please follow Reform Jersey to keep up to date with the campaign. What Reform Jersey stands for makes sense and is logical and our lobbying has clearly had an impact.




p.s. I did actually have to look up whether it's "referenda" or "referendums". Apparently referenda is for multiple issues, referendums for the same issue. Damn confusing!

Nick Le Cornu's blog here has video footage of the presentation and questions on the reform package.

Monday, 15 October 2012

No such thing as independence

So now a post on something not really Jersey related but something that’s quite interesting going on.

Today the Prime Minister of the UK and the First Minister of Scotland signed an agreement laying out the foundations for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. It’s confirmed that 16 year olds will be allowed to vote, and that the only question on the ballet will be that of independence (no question on further devolution). (The full thing can be read here)

The question of “independence” comes up a lot in various different contexts. Whether it’s Senator Bailhaches covert campaign for Jersey’s independence from the UK, the SNPs campaign for Scotland’s independence from the UK or UKIPs campaign for independence from the European Union.

I've been thinking about it quite a lot because I was contacted by someone from BBC Scotland the other day who wanted to ask me about what impact lowering the voting age in Jersey had, considering it was about to be done in Scotland. I might be interviewed for a program on that subject, but it's not confirmed yet.

Being a socialist and a democrat, you'd expect me to be against any sort of nationalism and in favour of self determination. I've expressed views on the Falkland Islands before, as well as my pretty strong views on Israel-Palestine. But the answer to any question of self determination doesn't always answer with independence. A people can, and in my opinion should, choose to be part of greater unions.

The world is getting smaller, we need fewer countries, not more. The world needs more co-operation and less competition.

There are obviously all the questions to ask about things like identity etc, which are important, but I'm more concerned about the practical implications.

On Scotland

The question of independence for Scotland is an utterly futile one. On such a small island as Great Britain, and with the context of the EU, frankly, there is no such thing as real independence for Scotland.

If Scotland were independent, it would have 3 paths it could go down. Independence away from the EU, independence in the EU with the Pound as its currency, or independence in the EU with the Euro.

All three of these have problems.

The first option, to be outside of the EU, isn't really feasible. For a start, look how Iceland turned out. Their economy completely crashed and now they are begging for EU membership. But Scotland could model itself on Norway which is a part of the European Free Trade Area and is doing quite well for itself. But the problem there is that that position requires a huge democratic deficit. To be a part of the EFTA, you still have to be subject to all EU directives and regulations, but because you aren't actually a part of the EU, you don’t have a seat at the table, helping decide what those rules are. You even have to make a contribution to the costs of running the EU! For Norway, that actually amounts to more than some of the countries that are actually a part of the EU.

But the stated preferred position from the Scottish Government is that Scotland would remain in the EU (the key word there is “remain”, rather than, “apply to stay in”) with Sterling. Of course you then have to ask yourself why being in a union with England is not acceptable on the island, but it is on the continent...

The Scottish government believes that an independent Scotland would automatically remain a part of the EU, though they have refused to publish their evidence for this, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

If Scotland leaves the UK, it is doing just that, leaving the UK. It isn't ending the UK. The UK will carry on; just it will be without Scotland. It will be the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The well established international legal precedent is that when a part of a country secedes, it is effectively starting over fresh, whereas the country it left carries on with all of its legal obligations. When the Soviet Union split up, Russia took over its seat in the UN and the Security Council, and adopted all of the USSR’s treaties and diplomatic relations with all other countries. It was the countries like Georgia and Armenia that had to apply for new UN membership and set up their own embassies etc. The same happened to South Sudan quite recently.

It would be no different for Scotland. Scotland would have to seek to get its own signature on all the treaties it wanted to, but all of those would be subject to negotiation.

Now, whether Scotland had to apply to be a member of the EU is in a way irrelevant, because if it did, there is virtually no doubt that it would be accepted. It’s already implemented all EU legislation and, by virtue of having been a part of the UK for so long, it is at the required standards to join. The question that then arises is what conditions would there be?

The UK currently has many opt-outs from various treaty clauses that is has managed to negotiate. Things like not being compelled to join the Euro or join the Schengen Zone. The Schengen Zone is the area of Europe in which there are no border controls or need to present a passport. The UK has its own “Common Travel Area” with the Republic of Ireland and the crown dependencies, but it doesn't extend to the rest of Europe.

The problem Scotland has is that it will not inherit the UK's opt-outs, it will have to negotiate its own. A country of 5 million people will have far less bargaining power at the negotiating table than a country of 70 million has. Any country that joins Europe is required to eventually join both the Euro and the Schengen Zone. Both of these will be completely unacceptable to the Scottish people. Firstly because the Euro is in a bit of a mess at the moment that joining it now seems like too much of a risk to take. But it is also impossible to be a part of both the CTA and Schengen. If Scotland had no border controls with the rest of Europe, as well as none with the UK and Ireland, Scotland would become the point at which illegal immigrants used as their route into the UK. That would be completely unacceptable to the UK government and it would mean building border controls would have to be built between Scotland and England.

The island is too small for a partition like that, it would cause a huge amount of aggravation for ordinary people in both countries, given the massive business and also family ties the people have.

But then comes the final hurdle. Regardless of whether Scotland accepts the terms of ascension as they are, or by some miracle they manage to negotiate some exemptions, there will have to be a unanimous approval by the rest of the member states for Scotland to join, and one of those countries that will need to approve will be the UK. If the UK (or any other country for that matter) says no, it can’t join. End of. And as the Prime Minister has shown, he isn't afraid to jeopardise our countries relationship with Europe by using that veto if he thinks it’s in the UK's interests.

So if Scotland wants to join the EU, it will have to be extra nice to the UK. As it stands, the Scottish government position is that an independent Scotland would not inherit the UK’s debt, it would maintain control over all of the North Sea oil, the UK's nuclear weapons would be kicked out of Scotland (which also has implications for Scotland’s stated position of remaining in NATO), it would keep the Scottish army facilities and the Scottish banks that were bailed out by the UK government will remain the UK governments problem. The UK government won’t want to accept any of these.

I've already said that Scotland will have issues joining the Euro, but there are equally issues using the Pound. For a start, Scotland will have no say over what interest rates the Bank of England sets. At the moment, the Bank of England will take into account the economy of the whole UK when deciding the rates, but if Scotland isn't a part of that country, then it has no duty to consider them. So the current legitimate complaint from the Scots that interest rates are unfair on Scotland, will actually become worse if Scotland becomes independent.

An independent Scotland would be completely free to do whatever it likes with its taxes. I foresee two possible outcomes from this. If the people of Scotland didn’t see the SNP as being redundant after independence, and kept them on in government, they’d be likely to smartly realise if they lowered taxes, they could encourage wealthy people and businesses to come from England to Scotland. The rest of the UK won’t like this, and it will cause tension. The other possibility is that the SNP will become history and Scotland will become perpetually ruled by a more left wing Scottish Labour party who will do the opposite and raise taxes, meaning anyone worth anything will just leave to the rest of the UK (which will be perpetually ruled by Tories who will lower taxes).

Either way it is a race to the bottom that will mean both countries lose out on tax revenues.

Does the Scottish government really think that the UK would be happy to let them proceed with tax policies that they saw as being detrimental? Especially when the SNP says that an independent Scotland would want to keep using the Pound. As the Eurozone has showed us, a monetary union does not work unless there is a degree of fiscal co-ordination. If Scotland wants to use the Pound, it will have to have a fiscal pact or treaty with the UK, and as the greater power, it will be the UK calling the shots, and it will specifically bar Scotland from doing things, like lowering corporation tax, that it thought would harm the UK economy.

So at the end of it all, you have to ask yourself the question, what on Earth would Scotland benefit from by becoming independent? They wouldn't gain influence, they’d lose it, and they’d still have to concede a hell of a lot to the UK government and follow their rules. Some “independence”, huh?

But what this whole saga does is put a massive question mark over Britain's entire constitution and just what hell is exactly going on. When different parts of Britain and different sections of the population are pulling in various different directions and making different decisions constitutionally, you can end up with a country that is in disarray in how it is governed because of its inconsistencies.

Some in Britain are proud that we have an unwritten constitution, though in parliament virtually everyone concedes that the UK should be working towards writing one. The whole way the UK is governed needs to be re-examined, and looked at in the context of the whole country, and not just in the contexts of its constituent parts.

Scotland is likely to reject independence, but after the vote it is sure to get more powers for its parliament. The Welsh Assembly has indicated it wants to upgrade to a parliament. Then there’s Northern Ireland where no one is quite sure exactly what is going on. And England doesn't have any of its own institutions at all.

The problem with devolution is that it requires another level of politicians and any politician with any talent isn't going to want to waste them time in a devolved parliament, they'd rather be in national government. If Charles Kennedy led the Scottish Lib Dems, he would probably easily win government and become First Minister because he’s a very good politician. I'd guess Jim Murphey from Labour could do the same. But neither of these people have any interest, because their talents can serve far more people at the national level. Whereas the nationalists only care about their areas so don't bother as much with the UK parliament, which means they are destined to do better in the devolved parliaments.

When England has no assembly, a lot of resentment is caused by things like the West Lothian question where MPs from the other parts of Britain are able to vote (sometimes decisively) on issues that only affect England. You had the perverse situation where Scottish Lib Dem MPs were going on programs like Question Time justifying the rise in tuition fees, knowing perfectly well that they would go home to their constituencies that weekend and not have to justify it to their own constituents who weren't affected by it.

There’s talk of different ways to solve it, from creating an English Parliament, to just legislating to prevent non-English MPs voting on English matters, or just having the English MPs meet monthly to vote on English matters etc.

The problem is that none of these get to the real point, which is that there is inconsistency across the UK that needs to be addressed. There needs to be a debate on what the future of the country as a whole is.

My suggestion is this - The United Kingdom should be reconstituted into a Federal Republic. The national parliament should retain responsibility for pan-Britain affairs, defence, foreign relations, some taxes etc, but everything else should be decided in the local parliaments. But England shouldn't have a single parliament because it's too big and too diverse. It should be split into regions that make sense geo-politically and culturally. So there'd be parliaments for the North-East, South-West etc but also London could be it's own region. Each region would therefore have it's own First Ministers (they could also have directly elected presidents, if that was something desired).

That would be the most democratic, the fairest and most consistent way to run the UK. I've made my views on the monarchy clear enough, hence why I've said it should be a Republic, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Queen couldn't remain in some sort of ceremonial role alongside an executive president.

On Europe

Last week came the controversial news that the European Union had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

I've said on this blog before that I believe patriotism is the final refuge of a scoundrel, and I don’t believe in being proud of where you are from simply because you happened to have accidentally been born there, but I have to confess that upon hearing that the EU had won this award, I actually did feel pride.

The Nobel Peace Prize has always been something I've had a bit of disdain for because of how many completely undeserving recipients it has. From Barack Obama, several Israeli Prime Ministers, the Dalai Lama, etc, it just seems a bit of a laughing stock. But here I felt an institution that actually deserved the recognition was being given it, especially at a time when it is so important for people to remember why the European Union was formed in the first place.

I went to Paris a few months ago and spent some time in Les Invalides, the military museum, where I noticed this sign that initially confused me –

You'll notice the dates for the two world wars aren't what we generally perceive them to be. Most people would say that the First World War started in 1914. But when I thought about it some more I remembered that the French have a different perspective on these sorts of things than us in the Anglosphere have.

Forty four years before the First World War was another devastating war between Germany and France that Britain had not been involved in. It ended with a humiliating French loss and having to surrender a significant amount of territory to Germany. The resentment was one thing that led to the tension that led to the First World War and also the French desire to force harsher terms on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Then came the devastation of the Second World War.

For hundreds of years, Europe had constantly been at war with itself, hundreds of millions of lives were lost, and it always set back progression. But today, such a situation is completely unthinkable.

France and Germany, two of the most powerful countries in the world, going to war is just a ridiculous idea now, even though for centuries it was something that happened every 5 minutes. Whereas, for the decades after the Second World War, it was entirely feasible that America and the Soviet Union could go to war. A completely different situation.

The ultimate tool to prevent war is business. When America and the Soviet Union started co-operating more, the tensions reduced and both nations realised that there was nothing to gain from war. The same was true for Germany and France, though they realised it much sooner.

The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor to the European Economic Community) was such a simple, yet genius idea. It brought joint control over their coal and steel resources, and thus made it physically impossible for the countries to wage a war with each other, because they were legally bound to co-operate on their resources for waging war!

I've always said that if America wanted to reduce tension with Russia and China, it should invite them both to join NATO!

Then from the ECSC it developed into EEC, the EC and now the EU, further intertwining the countries of Europe so they are so economically connected with each other that war between then is just impossible.

But all this isn't to say that Britain would instantly be at war with our European neighbours if we left the EU, but it does show that the EU and further integration is plainly the future and by not being at the forefront of it, the UK will be sidelined, so independence from Europe doesn't offer us anything.

There is all sorts of pathetic misinformation about the European Union that goes around in the right-wing press in Britain. As much as we may moan about the media in Jersey and it's constant inability to present things accurately, we should always remember that the UK national papers are often capable of the same level of incompetence. But as usual, it is bloggers that hold them to account and help get the truth out. My favourite source for finding information on the European Union is this great blog - http://www.jcm.org.uk/blog/

The fact is, the EU is nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be. It isn't that undemocratic (especially when compared with the UK system of government), it doesn't take away our sovereignty and it is good value for money.

Britain at the forefront of Europe would make the whole continent more prosperous and more peaceful. Independence is just built on petty nationalism that can only cause harm in the long run.

On Jersey

Do I even need to make the case?


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Strikes, the lesser of two evils.

Another strike, another opportunity for the media to completely misrepresent the situation! Some facts desperately need clearing up.

Lets get this out of the way first - I hate strikes.

I'm not one of these people that glories in militancy and itch to kick off and take a day off. When a strike happens, regardless of anything, it is a sign of a failure with industrial relations between the bosses and the workers. I'm pro-business (not in the Tory way I hasten to add) and no business will be sustainable and moral if it is unable to keep a team of people together who are capable of getting on together without resentment.

I don't want there to be problems at work. Problems at work can ruin lives. Whether it is bullying from co-workers, discrimination, or fear of losing that job, all these little things can make life unbearable for ordinary working people. I want everyone to be able to go to work, get on with everyone and be treated fairly, with dignity and able to put all their effort into working hard and getting their job done.

But what I hate more than strikes is when people in high places think they can take their workers for granted, treat them like dirt and walk all over them. When that happens, working people absolutely have to be prepared to stand up for themselves. In that circumstance, going on strike is the lesser evil and we should support them if they are a last resort and if all negotiations have failed.

Withdrawing ones labour is a fundamental human right. The moment that right is lost, we lose our freedom, because it's a green light for those in positions of power to start asking for more from their workers whilst giving them less, and we would be able to do nothing about it. That would start a race to the bottom for working conditions and we would all suffer as a result.

The fact that a group of workers can organise themselves and refuse to work gives them a bargaining power that without, they would be powerless to do anything at work. And what sort of democracy would we be if we left workers powerless to do anything to affect such an important part of their lives?

But what have the unions ever done for us?!

*Warning - contains strong language*

So let's look at exactly what is being said about this particular case in Jersey and what the truth actually is.

Despite misleading articles and an irrelevant fixation, this strike has absolutely nothing to do with pay, or technically even the hours they are allowed to work.

What it is to do with is the fact a promise was broken. Simple enough.

When a company is sold on to another, or, as in this case, a service provider is tendered out, it can be a ridiculously stressful time for the workers. They can be kept out of the know, not be a part of the negotiations and end up not even knowing whether they will still have a job by the end of it all.

But here, the workers, represented by their trade union Unite (which is also my union, which I totally recommend joining, it's far better than my utterly useless NUS membership...) negotiated with the Transport and Technical Services department to get assurances that whichever company won the tender, the workers could all keep their jobs and their current conditions, as they were. TTS agreed.

The arrangement for the transfer was to be the same as that provided in the Transfer Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006. So it was pretty clear what had to be done.

But what has kicked off this strike is the realisation that actually no such transfer has been properly arranged. TTS says it is because Connex and Unite didn't provide them with the documentation necessary, though they both claim that all of the information was provided initially for the tender information. I'm more inclined to believe Connex because their point of view makes much more sense.

If one business made a promise to another business and then broke it, they would get sued for breach of contract. How is the Connex workers going on strike any different?

The workers (I say workers, because it's all Connex workers, not just the bus drivers), are now being offered contracts that are different from the ones they currently have. This is the real point. This is not what they were promised. They were promised that their jobs were all guaranteed and things would stay as they are. You can argue over whether that's right or not, but it's an irrelevant argument, because it's not what was agreed.

Making then breaking promises is a poor way to conduct business. If TTS had no intention of securing a TUPE style transfer, then they should never have undertaken that commitment, and now their palming off the blame on others is just pathetic.

There's all sorts of nonsense in the media about them being able to work 70 hours a week (that's 10 hours a day, think it through for goodness sake...). No one works 70 hours a week.  Now, there may well be some health and safety issues for people driving for long hours, but that is a matter for statute to correct because no limits also apply to taxi drivers, coach drivers or drivers down at the harbour.

There is also talk about how the strike is technically illegal. True, you need to give 7 days notice for a strike. Problem there is that CTP were giving them until 12th October to accept their new contracts. So they physically didn't have enough time to give them notice. CTP had promised to meet workers representatives this weekend, but didn't. It's a dirty tactic to give a deadline like that and not allow enough time for negotiation and consultation so resolve the dispute. Striking is a last option.

But hey, if Churchill had had to give Hitler 7 days notice he was sending some Spitfires round, we probably wouldn't have won the second world war!

This may technically give Connex the right to sack the strikers. But they won't because it would be impossible to sack the entire work force, and they can't sack a section of them because there is no way of fairly distinguishing a group for sacking that wouldn't be considered unfairly discriminatory.

Of course, it really is a huge shame that this has to affect so many others in Jersey. The OAPs who can't get out and about without the buses. The kids who have real trouble getting to school. It really is a shame, but how could anyone expect to put aside their livelihood for others in that way? There comes a point where they just have to do what is best for themselves. I spend half the year in London where we regularly have public transport strikes, and we just get on with our day and find another way to get where we need to be. The price of riding your bike for a few days is worth paying if it means we live in a fairer society in which bosses aren't allowed to get away with breaking agreements with their workers.

When will working people realise that the reason they so often get such a rough deal is because they are tricked into fighting each other instead of fighting those above them?

I hope the strike is resolved as quickly as possible, and frankly, I think the TTS Minister should be ready to tender his resignation for doing such a poor and shambolic job over all this.

Finally, I just wanted to share a comment from our esteemed former Senator Jim Perchard who posted on the BBCs facebook page this comment earlier -

Of course I could spend hours dismantling this fascistic nonsense, but instead I'll just point out the comment my best friend James (a guy who I have huge admiration for and whose blunt way of putting a point across can instantly have me in fits of laughter) left him. The comment was "Hey Jim, I suppose you think all the bus drivers should just go top themselves, right?". Priceless!


Monday, 1 October 2012

A failing government void of values and economic credibility

The inescapable story of today has been the news that Jersey remains in recession with negative economic growth of 1%. That's a 14% contraction in 3 years.

Whilst in the UK there is huge controversy when economic growth is at -0.5% and the fact that the UK has gone in, then out, then back into recession again, in Jersey there seems to be mainstream complacency from the public about the fact that our economic decline has been consistent without even a brief period of recovery like the UK.

In the UK there are threats of a general strike and a strong political opposition that attempts to argue against the failing governments economic plans. Yet in Jersey, the only ones seemingly ready to stand up and do something about it are the trade unions, who are dismissed by the media and right wing commentators and only make up a small part of the population anyway.

All the more important, this news comes at a time when we find out that in Guernsey their economy actually grew by 1%. We have two islands right next door to each other. Jersey is in recession, Guernsey is not. Jersey has high unemployment, Guernsey does not. Jersey has had to increase GST, Guernsey didn't even have to introduce one. This shows that it isn't just about a world wide downturn, but that government policy is capable on influencing it.

We really need to ask ourselves where Jersey is going wrong and what needs to change to fix things as soon as possible.

Irresponsible promises

We had the astounding spin from Senator Ozouf that a 1% contraction in the economy was somehow "an encouraging sign", but when you dig deeper to see what the governments actual policies are in this tough economic time, it is anything but encouraging.

When the economy is in crisis you'd expect to see mainstream arguments (as they have in the UK) between what the appropriate way to fix it with public spending and tax initiatives is. In Jersey we don't really have this debate on any meaningful level. We just hear a few bits and bobs from a government that doesn't overtly seem to have any guiding principles or values leading to why it is doing what it is doing, and then the arguments about how each particular policy is in line with their vision.

The Treasury Minister has made the rather irresponsible promise that there will be no further tax rises for 3 years. They say a week is a long time in politics, so 3 years is a very long time indeed and, especially when the economy is in the shape it is, it is irresponsible to say that the government will absolutely not consider tax rises for such a period of time.

When you make promises like that, you are destined to break them, which leads to unhealthy cynicism in politics. Remember Senator Ozoufs promise that he would actively resist any attempt to raise GST and then he was the one who actively proposed it?

What he should be saying is that if the economy worsens, the government will have to re-examine it's strategy. Having no "Plan B", as it were, could be catastrophic. Okay, that means a degree of long term uncertainty for both business and the public, but the alternative is far worse.

But the government can make some promises.

The government can't and shouldn't be making a blanket promise of no tax rises. But what they can promise is that whatever their fiscal policy is, it will be compatible with certain values and principles. Namely that it will be those most well off amongst us that should bare the brunt of the tax rises and that cuts to public spending will be targeted at things that will not make life harder for vulnerable people that rely on those public services. By implication, that means things like no increase in GST, maybe having a Capital Gains Tax introduced instead etc.

That is a promise that they can make, but they aren't. Time and time again, Jersey ends up with a government that (aside from the accurate generalisations that they are conservative and work as a block) is undefinable in the sense of pinning a specific clear line of policy (a "manifesto"), a clear set of values and working method. Our political system doesn't let these values become the centre of what we are trying to decide at election time. Instead it's just a personality contest.

The 5 point plan

In my 5 point plan (outlined in a previous blog post), I said that Jersey needs to focus its cuts in spending on waste and unproductive government activities. I can immediately identify two topical things that are a waste. Firstly, we have talk at the moment that the States may buy up the old Pontins site at Plemont for £8m (which by the way, the owner says is not enough), and then sell it on the Jersey National Trust for £2m so they can return it to nature. Personally, the idea of returning something to nature seems absurd to me. That site has had buildings on it for well over 150 years. Any nature that one day occupies it will be "artificial nature". Instead we have developers wanting to build housing on it and they don't even have to destroy any more nature to do so. Yet the government is intent on wasting £6m for no apparent benefit.

Secondly there has also been talk about the Williamson report looking into a terms of reference for a committee of inquiry into the child abuse scandal in Jersey. This, despite the fact that the government had already spent £60k on the Verita report into a terms of reference for an inquiry. Having two reports was a total waste of money, especially when the first one had nothing wrong with it. They just need to get on with it and have a full and comprehensive committee of inquiry to get justice for the victims and lay a foundation for framework to make sure this can never happen again to vulnerable children in Jersey. That would be money well spent, not like the thousands they have needlessly wasted trying to cover it all up.

The fact that the government will waste money on things like this whilst telling ordinary working people that they have to face cuts to public spending shows contempt for the ordinary people of Jersey.

All of the money that can be saved should be spent on projects for job creation and helping small businesses. GST should be cut (if only temporarily) and alternative tax methods should be looked at that focus on extracting more from the islands wealthiest.

The problem is that the personal politics of it is coming before the economics. The individuals that are fighting for these things aren't able to do so on a wider platform. So nobody ends up with what they want out of the government.


As I have made clear in my previous posts on electoral reform, Jersey's political system is not fit for purpose. It is neither democratic, nor capable of producing an effective and cohesive government.

In my essay The Economic Dictatorship I argue that the most profound benefit of a full and working democracy is that it is inevitably going to create a better economy. It provides for the utilisation of all talents, it allows the incorporation and consideration of criticism and provides for the benefits of wealth creation to be equitably spread around.

Instead we have a States Assembly with many talents excluded from government, valid criticism is often silenced, and Jersey is becoming more unequal every day. We need a dramatic change in the political culture of this island otherwise we are doomed to decades more of the same, running this beautiful island into the ground.

A seemingly absurd comparison

The more I think about it, the more I am drawn to make an historical comparison that may on the face of it seem absurd, but hear me out.

Karl Marx believed (and I agree with him wholeheartedly) that revolutions are an inevitability in systems that allow the the material base to become so far detached from a mass of people who are becoming more and more intellectually and philosophically aware. He predicted that this would be the case with capitalism (and he has yet to be vindicated), but it's a principle that clearly works in other situations.

Take for example the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, the people of the USSR began to realise that their economic and political model was unsustainable and had to go, but that it was best for everyone to avoid a revolution because (as the early anti-Trotskyites realised) a revolution is chaotic and does not necessarily lead to democracy.

This was realised and spearheaded by the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev (in my opinion a great man), who wanted an organised transition from a Communist dictatorship into a social democracy. But the hard line Communists (who had vested interests) attempted to subvert the process, which caused chaos, which was exploited by Boris Yeltsin (in my opinion a terrible man) who was able to take power, get independence for Russia, break apart the Soviet Union (despite the only democratic referendum in Soviet history showing a huge majority supported keeping the union), and plunge the country into economic downturn. Now the former nations of the Soviet Union have bad relations, there has been war, and Russia is run by the oligarchs. Now the world is left with one superpower, the United States of America, which has been a profound force for evil internationally and has not had another superpower to balance it out (do you think America could have invaded Iraq if a democratic Soviet superpower had opposed it?).

Now compare this to Jersey. We also have a political system that is not fit for purpose, that the public are growing increasingly discontent with. We had our great reformer, Daniel Wimberley, set out the framework to fix Jerseys political system. But those with vested interests sought to subvert it, and Senator Bailhache was able to usurp it. If the people of Jersey remain complacent, Senator Bailhache will be our very own Boris Yeltsin.

(Yes, I did just compare the Jersey Establishment to the Soviet hard line Communists! That was the part of the comparison that might have sounded absurd)

The point that I am trying to make is that culturally, Jersey is completely in the wrong place to fix our problems. We need more political engagement and active debates on the economy as a whole and what values we want behind the policies to ensure that the island resembles what we want it to. But Jersey must be able to reform itself and put aside the vested interests.

Those that have been in power in Jersey for decades have run the island for the interests of only themselves and a small minority of the islands population (the rich) on the basis of an ideology that is not only morally bankrupt, but also ignorant of the economic realities that have been adduced since the 1920s.

Jersey needs to build a popular movement of ordinary people from all walks of life that can fight and argue for an administration that runs by full democratic principles and actively seeks out to create a fairer society based on the values that we all hold. Jersey needs a democratic socialist political party in whom we can place our trust and help to win control of Jersey so that it can be run by the people, for the people.

Having full employment is not impossible. Having decent pensions for our old folks is not impossible. Having a society in which we all have our fair place and contribute a fair amount to the community is not impossible. We just need to accept these realities and work together to cast aside the vested interests and make this island as good as it can be.

We're working on it!


P.S. Deputy Pitman has started video blogs talking about topical events and giving a spin on it that you won't hear in the mainstream media. Check it out - http://thebaldtruthjersey.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-bald-truth-review-political-week-in.html

Also, since I mentioned the Williamson report, here is the reaction from the JCLA - http://voiceforchildren.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/guest-posting-from-abuse-survivor-and.html