Only time will show whether Jersey’s or Guernsey’s electoral system produces the better form of governance for voters

THE bailiwicks of the Channel Islands have similar constitutional histories. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the constitutional and governance architecture in Guernsey and Jersey are also alike, each having a Bailiff, a Lieutenant-Governor, Jurats, a unicameral parliament – known as the States Assembly in Jersey and the States of Deliberation in Guernsey – and so on.

Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31471816)
Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31471816)

The membership of those parliaments will feel familiar in each island, having had that shared history. Albeit, unlike Jersey, the Dean of Guernsey has not had a seat in the Guernsey assembly for decades and Guernsey’s Douzaine Representatives – drawn from the ten parishes’ douzaines – were removed nearly 20 years ago, while the closest equivalent, Jersey’s Constables, still sit in Jersey’s States Assembly.

However, one area of relatively recent divergence is the adoption of so-called ‘islandwide voting’ in Guernsey, at just the time Jersey has decided to scrap elections organised on this basis for its Senators. With echoes of Animal Farm, it seems that all Jersey’s States Members are equal, but some are more equal than others. In particular, Senators elected with an Islandwide mandate historically seem to have been regarded as ‘more equal’ than their parish Deputy or Constable peers and often go on to hold more senior positions after their election. This was articulated during Guernsey’s many debates on the subject, and described as creating a two-tier membership system with ‘goats and sheep’. For this reason, Guernsey’s assembly repeatedly refused to adopt any Jersey-like Senatorial setup, with just some Members being elected on an islandwide basis, and everyone else being chosen from seven broadly similar-sized electoral districts arranged around parishes. This refusal might also have been informed by Guernsey’s apparently ill-fated attempt to adopt this system back in the late 1990s, when ‘Conseillers’ (who had been unelected following appointment by the States of Deliberation from among their own number) were for just one election, like Senators, chosen by the people in an islandwide election. Whether it is wise or not for the elected to ignore popular will expressed through the ballot box by the electorate is a wider question, but the Guernsey States’ view at the time was that the electorate in its infinite wisdom had chosen the ‘wrong people’, with the leadership believing that the most popular candidates were the least suitable to have been elected.

The experiment with islandwide voting for just a few members was ended when the elected Conseillers’ term was cut short and the role and title consigned to the historical scrapheap.

Guernsey’s general election held in October 2020 used an islandwide mechanism. The change in voting system was approved after Guernsey’s first referendum – itself complex, with multiple options ranked using the single-transferable-vote system (are you still with me?).

The election appears to have been the first in the world, in the absence of well-developed political parties, to attempt to elect a national-level government in a single constituency. Logistically it seemed to work. Voter registration and voter turnout went up, with a majority favouring postal voting; and each voter used a good share of up to 38 votes to select from 118 candidates. They were aided in this task by a government-collated, printed manifesto booklet delivered to each household, allowing each candidate a couple of pages to set out their stall, along with a short, self-promotional video. Anecdotes abounded of families and friends having ‘election-selection parties’, making choosing candidates and the voting process a shared experience, enjoyed over a bottle of wine or a few beers. Alcohol-fuelled electoral decisions probably should not be encouraged, but given the gargantuan task voters faced in sifting through dozens of candidates, they can hardly be blamed for heading down that road.

While around 30 or so prospective politicians had publicly aligned themselves with other candidates, the poor electorate hadn’t got a clue or a chance of knowing how their favoured choices would interact with each other. So the verdict is probably still pending for many on whether this new electoral methodology has or has not produced a more coherent group of elected representatives who are capable of delivering more effective government and policy making.

Proponents of the change in voting system included the current Chief Minister (who, interestingly, also made the case for that role to become directly elected). They contended that its adoption would lead to party politics, which in turn could more readily herald the introduction of a more effective – in their view – executive rather than a committee system of government. In short, they were playing the long game for governance reform and they may well still be proved right – time will tell.

It is fascinating to see Jersey adopting the electoral system ahead of its 2022 general election that Guernsey has just scrapped, with nine multi-member electoral districts of broadly similar size, to elect 37 Deputies. It is also interesting to note Jersey did not take the opportunity, when presented, to follow Guernsey’s 2004 change to scrap the parish representatives’ role in the Assembly, so retaining both 12 Constables and a group of 49 members in total. Interestingly, too, Jersey seems much further down the path in its political evolution in the development of more readily recognisable political parties, even without Guernsey’s islandwide electoral system. Reform Jersey have been joined this year by the formation of Jersey Alliance and the Progress Party and former Bailiff and Senator Sir Philip Bailhache’s proto-party, the Jersey Liberal Conservatives. All are readying themselves to fight next year’s general election. Given Jersey already has a more executive form of government than Guernsey, it is well placed for a party or parties in coalition commanding a majority in the States Assembly to transparently seek control and lead the Government of Jersey.

In the span of our shared history, a few years or decades of minor divergence in our electoral systems are insignificant. But it is only the passage of time that will allow history to judge whether Guernsey or Jersey got it (optimistically) more right or (pessimistically) less wrong than their near neighbour.

Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.

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