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'Happy New Year to all Jersey politicians and the virtual variety you call Les Connétables'

Voices | Published:

By Richard Digard

(23523463)

WELL, happy New Year to all Jersey politicians and the virtual variety you call Les Connétables. And lest you think Digard’s off to an unusually offensive start, let me warn there’s worse to come.

The thing is, no one cares about you. Nothing personal and all that, except it IS all about you, what you stand for – or don’t; what you actually do – or don’t; and who you are, be that Deputy, Senator or Constable.

Comprehensive, eh? And official. From ComRes, no less, and its voter engagement survey for the States of Jersey, which sets out a pretty bleak picture of why more Island residents don’t vote than do.

Let me declare an interest in the report: Guernsey’s about to dump its tried and tested election process in favour of an as yet unwritten system in which everyone votes for all Deputies, irrespective of parish or district. And no, we have no idea of how that will happen or what the consequences will be other than a nagging feeling it won’t turn out well.

That said, I didn’t get any clues from ComRes about how our 2020 general election under the Islandwide banner might fare – but it did bring home what was pretty obvious if only we’d all stopped to think about it.

The way we select States Members and how they go about their tasks and duties hasn’t really changed since the end of the Occupation, which is why approaching 60% didn’t bother to vote last time, a level of disinterest that rose to close to 70% in parts of St Helier.

Quite apart from this having implications for the democratic legitimacy of the Assembly, a point touched on by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in its own review last year, how can States Members represent their constituents if they’re not engaging with them?

Read the ComRes report and several things become clear. Time has moved on but the electoral system has not. In a digital and social media age, electing States members has remained firmly analogue, which is why nearly two-thirds of those aged 16-34 didn’t vote in 2018.

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Ponder that a moment. Voting’s for wrinklies, the 55-plus bracket, and predominantly those with strong Jersey connections. Consciously or otherwise, it’s excluding younger folk and immigrants.

That’s clearly unsustainable but the problems go beyond the absence of electronic voting, the complexity of three classes of States Member and their perceived disengagement with the electorate. Which is why I started by saying nobody cares about politicians.

Ask those not voting and it’s because candidates don’t represent their values and requirements. Even if they did, there’s widespread scepticism that one individual can actually achieve anything or make the improvements that the excluded majority want.

That’s a pretty disturbing analysis. Politicians are used to being told they’re not representative but ComRes has established that for a very large number of Jersey residents that’s actively the case.

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More worrying – and this has implications for Guernsey too – that disengagement from swathes of the electorate is precisely due to what Channel Islanders have always regarded as the strength of their system: we vote for independents. None of that filthy party politics here, thank you very much.

Except, and it’s a very big except, today’s generation of social media-savvy, non-local (whatever that means) residents now see that as a massive weakness.

Firstly, how do they really get to know a candidate? To begin with, that political hopeful will likely be older, wealthier, of a different status and motivated by other issues to the voter they’re asking to trek to a parish hall and wield paper and pencil on their behalf.

Secondly, even if the reluctant parishioner invests that time in a candidate, ComRes highlights that electors are acutely aware that it’s largely a wasted effort. Should their person get in, that one individual won’t be able to change anything.

Which is why potential voters are staying away in droves.

However, simplify the system so more, and more meaningful, information is available (via mobile phone obviously), introduce political parties with clear and accessible manifestos, and Jersey’s missing voters will engage. Well, as long as they can do so electronically and over a longer period.

If this research applies to Guernsey – and I suspect in large part it does – responding to it will be even harder than here because political parties really don’t feature in the Sarnian psyche.

Nevertheless, the ComRes research makes it pretty clear that the electors Jersey seeks to convert into voters favour parties for the clarity of policy that brings, the confidence that they, finally, will be represented and that a number of like-minded members have more chance of making the improvements so many residents want.

So if candidate X stands up and declares, ‘I’m here to make a difference on your behalf…’ more than half the Island collective looks him or her up and down, makes a value judgment, and says, ‘not for me you don’t – and anyway you can’t…’

In essence, disenfranchised younger and non-local Islanders regard voting for individuals as a waste of time and effort. If they are to turn out it’s for an organisation reflecting their ideals and likely to return enough States Members really to make a difference.

Achieving that’s either a massive cultural shift for the Island to embrace or else Reform Jersey’s well ahead of the pack.

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