Guernsey Press

OPINION: Party animals

Richard Graham looks at how Guernsey’s political parties are faring after our government’s first full year in office

Eight members of 'Charter 2018' meet the media at St Pierre Park Hotel in February 2018. (30249663)

WE HAVE no right to expect meetings of the States of Deliberation to provide us with entertainment and the meeting last week managed to confirm that we don’t.

It’s true that Deputy De Lisle did his best to entertain us early in the meeting with his big-screen impersonation of the famous mime artist Marcel Marceau, but finally some spoilsport disconnected his mute button and that was the end of the fun.

So what’s a political sketch writer supposed to do when he isn’t presented with any material? The answer is he allows his mind to drift. Mine drifted to wondering how our political parties and non-parties are faring after our government’s first full year in office.

I have no strong views about the value of political parties to our democratic process. For myself, I am as one with Groucho Marx in making it clear that I would never join a party that is daft enough to welcome me as a member. Looking back to 2018 and the origins of political groupings in Guernsey, I am reminded that Deputy Meerveld inadvertently provided us with his own, unique variation on that theme – by that I mean nobody else appeared willing to remain a member of any political organisation of which he was a member.

It all started in February 2018 with the formation of Charter 2018. Anybody remember them? Its membership comprised 11 deputies who described themselves as ‘like-minded’. Quite what it’s like to be ‘like-minded’ was never fully explained, but let’s not quibble about trivia. Of the original membership, only six remain as members of the current Assembly – Deputies Inder, Meerveld, Ferbrache, Prow, Dudley-Owen and Leadbeater.

Deputy Inder described himself as the political group’s draughtsman rather than its leader. ‘We are not just a talking shop but an action shop,’ he proclaimed. Sounds familiar? History will record that the only action which Charter 2018 ever took was to quietly disappear without trace having achieved precisely sweet Fanny Adams.

Within a month of the formation of our first quasi party, Guernsey had its second. Three of the Charter 2018 members, including Deputies Meerveld and Ferbrache, presented themselves as founder members of the Islanders (sic) Association. (Let’s not criticise their ignorance of the possessive form of a plural noun.) They were soon joined by Deputy Gollop when he heard that the launch party would include Prosecco and sausage rolls. It wasn’t clear at the time, nor at any time later, what the point of the new association was. It took Deputy Ferbrache only seven months to ask himself the same question and come up with the answer ‘none whatsoever’. He resigned, along with others, and left Deputy Meerveld in splendid isolation, a one-man non-party holding an unspent kitty of around £22,000.

Undeterred, Deputy Ferbrache, joined by former Deputies Mooney and the late Jan Kuttelwascher, formed yet another political grouping and named it the 2020 Association. Its principal aim seemed to consist of providing a Meerveld-free zone for political cooperation. I am told that sometime later Deputy Meerveld migrated into the 2020 Association. If he did, I have no reason to believe that the association’s subsequent disappearance into oblivion was anything more than a coincidence.

Despite the failure of these three pioneering parties, candidates for the 2020 general election were undeterred. Parties and quasi parties sprung up everywhere.

In a brazen attempt to mimic the UK’s Monster Raving Loony Party, the Alliance Party Guernsey fielded 11 candidates. None of them came anywhere near being elected, thereby cannily avoiding the embarrassment of having to apply their fantasy policies to the real world. The keenest competition among APG candidates was for the honour of coming last of the 119 candidates. Eight party members made it a nail-biting race to the bottom, as each of them persuaded 86% of the electorate not to vote for them.

Wishing to change the nature of local politics, Deputies St Pier and Soulsby formed the Motherhood and Apple Pie Partnership. They were moderately successful in that 10 partners were elected, the two leaders being among only three candidates overall who secured the support of more than 50% of the electorate. Thereafter, their fortunes declined. One leader was punished by the new Assembly for daring to top the poll by a wide margin and was sent into exile, while the other, as a member of P&R, was dragged, vote by vote, week by week, into the ‘don’t rock the boat’ blob that has since dominated the political agenda. One by one the partnership’s members resigned, some of them rightfully grateful to it for the support it gave them during the election.

Deputy Helyar’s Grey Male Party was the third party to contest the 2020 election and was upfront in claiming to be a party rather than a non-party. It was successful in that six of its eight candidates were elected, two of them scraping in by the skin of their teeth. Since the election, the GMP has been entertaining the Assembly with its version of the Hokey Cokey. First there were the six of them in the Assembly. Then Deputy McKenna saw which way the wind was blowing and joined them. So they were seven. Soon afterwards, the party concluded that Deputy Le Tissier’s enlightened views on foreigners and women were too much even for them and suspended him, upon which he resigned anyway. So they were back to six. But before their first year was out, Deputy McKenna felt the wind turning into the face of the GMP rather than behind it, and he jumped ship. So now it’s just five of them.

The GMP members now face a problem. They were elected on promises to reduce States spending and cut the number of civil servants but with one exception they sit on principal committees which are either spending more and more each year or adding to their staff numbers or are doing both. I have no idea how they solve the problem they have made for themselves, but then they appear not to either.

Deputy Ferbrache’s fourth non-party within three years emerged unheralded to contest the 2020 general election. Members of the White Van Non-Party strenuously deny it is a party and I believe them. A more accurate description would be that of a mobile billboard featuring four smiling faces. And they had every right to drive around the island looking pleased with themselves. They were all elected and then picked up four of the top jobs.

As for the latest States meeting, Deputy De Lisle’s cameo performance was not the only feature that attracted my attention. In the past I’ve indicated that my estimation of Deputy Taylor’s value to the Assembly reaches just a fingertip short of the Olympian heights occupied by his own opinion of it. This may be partly explained by his rash claim in the Assembly recently that our past and present harbour masters are all fools who between them know less about running our harbours than he does. But the world moves on, and I now find myself warming to him.

Not for the first time he delivered an articulate and thoughtful challenge to the conventional wisdom that has driven the States response to Covid-19. It’s a good job he didn’t try to deliver it in the Performing Arts Centre; otherwise he would have copped it from the ESC members as well as from Deputy Soulsby. As it was, he treated us to the best metaphor of the day when responding to P&R’s proposal to allow States members, on a permanent basis, to participate in States meeting without bothering to attend them in person. For Deputy Taylor, listening to the disembodied voices at such hybrid meetings was as miserable as the experience he had endured when treating shingles by smothering himself in cream and rubbing his inflamed bits with cold cucumber.

His damming characterisation of the P&R proposal and his intelligent challenge to the CCA’s approach to Covid-19 drew out some of the tetchy petulance that lurks below the surface of Deputy Soulsby’s usual equanimity in the Assembly. I hope I’m wrong, but P&R increasingly seems to regard the Assembly as an irritating challenge to its own power and authority.

On behalf of the electorate, members should resist any attempt to marginalise States meetings by relegating them to the status of a rubber-stamping institution whose members can just as easily push their approval buttons at home.

By the way, the members elected Deputy McKenna to replace Deputy Leadbeater on Home Affairs. It was predictable that Home Affairs would nominate him. Indeed, I won a small bet on it. How so? That will have to await a future sketch.