The problem with parties...

Political parties might make it easier for voters on election day, but Peter Gillson wonders if they are compatible with Guernsey’s system of government.

Shutterstock picture (28542166)
Shutterstock picture (28542166)

THE October election will be ground-breaking for us in two ways – firstly an island-wide election, and secondly the creation of at least one political party, with a few more on the horizon.

Having candidates grouped together under common manifestos will make the election easier for voters, but the election is just one day – government is for four years. With this in mind, I ask the question: are political parties compatible with our system of government?

We need to start by looking at the fundamentals of a party-based system. To do this I am using the UK as the example.

Importantly, the UK has a structural separation between their government and their parliament. All MPs are elected into parliament, but the Queen asks the leader of the largest party (Boris) to form the government. Therefore, only those MPs who the Prime Minister chooses to be ministers are actually part of the government.

The role of parliament is limited to scrutinising the government, passing laws, and approving budgets.

It is the government which determines policy, not parliament, and as long as the government acts within the existing laws and within its budget, it does not actually need the approval of parliament to run the country.

Governmental power and authority flows down from the Prime Minister. He is ‘top dog’ when it comes to policy making, he can determine the direction of the government, select his supporters for ministerial posts and, as we have seen with Boris, even merge government departments.

Now compare that to our system.

Firstly, the ‘Chief Minister’ and the Policy & Resources Committee are not the ‘top dog’. Government policy making is either devolved down to the individual committees or held at the level of the States of Deliberation – our parliament.

The result of this is that, unlike the UK, all deputies are members of our government, either by virtue of their membership of committees or when making decisions in the States of Deliberation.

In order for a political party to have the same level of control as in the UK it would need more than a simple majority of the States of Deliberation. With so many decisions being made at committee level, including implementing States decisions, a party would need to have enough deputies to hold a majority on each committee. Without such majorities, it cannot guarantee committees actually implementing States decisions.

Surely, a committee has to implement a States decision? Well, no. As Sir Geoffrey Rowland used to say, States resolutions are not laws, they are directions to committees, and it is a political decision to what degree a committee adheres to the decision. Remember, the States approved an amendment by Deputy Peter Roffey to introduce paid parking at 15p per hour – a resolution never actually implemented.

Having five members on each committee means a party would need to have at least three on each. There are six main committees and P&R, as well as other authorities and boards such as Planning and the States Trading Supervisory Board. Add to this the ad-hoc committees such as the Seafront Development Committee.

Okay, 21 deputies could fill a majority on all of the States bodies but there would have to be some doubling up.

This then leads to possibly a more fundamental problem. If you hold different views to the party, why join a committee?

To state the obvious, people go into politics to ‘make a difference’, which means influencing decisions, either in the States or in committees. If you know you are in a minority on a committee, and that any opposition you may have will always be out-voted and you will have no effective influence, why join that committee?

The result could be deputies resigning off committees through frustration or, worse still, committees not being able to fill their five seats.

Our system is structured, quite deliberately, to have five members on a committee, all with equal voting power and authority, so that decisions are made by reaching a consensus.

I admit that many decisions I was party to were not, in my view, perfect. I had to compromise, as did the other members of the committees.

One good example was being the vice-chairman of the Social Welfare Benefit Investigation Committee, which recommended to the States the level of social benefits. I think it is fair to say that half of us thought the final level of benefits was too high, while half of us thought it was too low. The result was a level which was probably about right, and one that was acceptable to the States.

A party with a majority would not need to compromise.

Our consensus government is based upon a compromise process in which policies are subject to scrutiny and challenge within committees and the States, which leads to evolutionary change.

Some may consider this slow, but it is what the public in Guernsey seem to generally accept. The public does not like fast, revolutionary change.

Let’s think back during this current term of government at the decisions which have really raised concerns with the public. The two which spring to mind are the original version of the discrimination law, and the two-school model for secondary education. Both involved far-reaching changes which could not be described as evolutionary. Neither had widespread support.

A dominant party may get a policy approved, but without public support they may lose the next election, resulting in their policy being reversed by the new government – remember the swing politics of the UK in the 1970s?

A party-based government would lead to a divided States, and to appreciate the problems with that we need look no further than the current States, which I see as being split into three informal groupings: the ‘Left’ Fallaize/Roffey/St Pier group; the ‘Centre Right’, who oppose the ‘Left’; and a group of mainly independents.

This has not been a successful government, which I think shows that confrontational government does not work well in our structure.

I accept that there will have always been various informal groups within the States, but as the number of deputies decreases, so does the number of ‘independent’ deputies, so the problems created by groups and ‘block voting’ are exacerbated.

As I noted at the start, having groups of candidates standing under coordinated manifestos will make an island-wide election easier, but we need to remember that government lasts for four years and, as we have seen, a divided and divisive government is not in the best interests of islanders.

I do hope that no single party gets a majority.

Top Stories

More From The Guernsey Press

UK & International News