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Election spending hikes will favour wealth wannabees

Peter Roffey | Published:

TWO subjects today.

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Details of how the first ever island-wide election will be conducted have now been released. Much of it is common sense but the plans still throw into sharp relief some of the practical problems with moving to a single constituency.

For example, there has had to be a big leap in the permitted spending levels for candidates. In the 2016 general election the most any candidate was allowed to spend on promoting themselves was £2,600. Next year that will go up dramatically to £9,000.

One can understand why. If candidates wish to produce an individual manifesto and distribute it to all voters then doing so island-wide is clearly going to be a lot more expensive than for a seventh of the island. Likewise with poster coverage – although I have always taken the view that blow-ups of my face were probably more likely to lose me votes than win them.

The real problem is that it starts to make a complete nonsense of the original reason for restricting spending by candidates. It was so wealthier wannabe deputies did not have an inherent advantage over those of more modest means. Guernsey didn’t want to go down the American route where the campaign which could afford to spend the most was already halfway to success at the ballot box.

When I first stood for election the spending limits were very modest but they have steadily crept up over the years. This latest leap really does undermine their purpose. Very many good candidates will not be able to afford to spend anything like £9k saying ‘vote for me and this is why you should’ so they will start at a big disadvantage to those with deeper pockets.

Another new feature will be allowing political parties to also spend up to £9k on jointly promoting their candidates, although the individual spending limits of those candidates will be reduced accordingly. So, for example, if a party is fielding nine candidates they can spend £9k centrally but each of those candidates will be limited to £8k for their individual campaign. If they have 18 candidates and want to spend £9k centrally then each candidate will be limited to £8.5k and so on.

I think this is likely to change the nature of promotional material with parties spending money very differently to individuals. So expect bigger roadside posters, newspaper and radio ads and perhaps even the odd TV ad. Whether the public will welcome that change and reward it at the ballot box remains to be seen.

Some promotional material will be facilitated centrally. So every candidate will be offered the chance to put a very concise manifesto in a booklet of such offerings to be delivered to each island household with someone on the electoral roll. Those of us who like studying paperwork in hard copy will welcome this but I suspect it might annoy those who prefer to do their reading online. Apparently it would be too difficult operationally to offer the choice.

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That said, there will be online manifestos too, hosted on a central election website. I presume these will be able to be somewhat longer if that is what candidates want to provide. Also on that website will be a short video clip of each candidate, which I rather think a few of them might find a slightly intimidating process.

Another feature of online campaigning will be the opportunity for islanders to pose questions to the candidates. I think that is a great innovation but (call me old fashioned) I will still mourn the loss of the traditional hustings. Candidates having to field questions from a packed school hall did tend to help in sorting the sheep from the goats.

Other parts of the plan make perfect sense, such as heavily promoting postal voting. Each voter is likely to take much longer in the polling booth selecting up to 38 candidates from (maybe) 100. As a result, the more people who vote from home the less problematic and annoying queuing at polling stations is likely to be. Mind you, with the size of the likely ballot form, those exercising postal votes will need to be provided with pretty big envelopes.

If you do prefer to vote in person, another change is that you will now be able to do so ahead of the day of the general election. That is a good innovation which has worked well in Jersey.

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Will the whole thing come together? We shall see. Personally, I still like the concept of IWV in principle but really worry about the practicalities.

Changing subject briefly.

One of the side-effects of the States taking forever to debate the annual Budget was that there was very little time left to discuss the uprating report from the Employment & Social Security Committee on non-contributory benefits. That was a shame.

I know some of my colleagues were keen to explain why they thought it was wrong to increase the benefit limitation to a level well above average earnings. They felt it might prove a disincentive to work. I was equally keen to explain why they had got it so wrong.

The reality is that most of the beneficiaries of the new policy are households where at least one person is working.

What is more, they are also households which until quite recently were receiving more help from the States than they do now and without anybody raising an eyebrow.

So why the sudden moral hysteria? Let me explain.

Imagine a largish family, with maybe three or four children, where at least one and maybe both parents are working but earning modest wages. Traditionally most such households were accommodated in social housing. As such, they qualified for rent rebates which reduced their accommodation costs to well below commercial rates. They might also get a very small top-up from supplementary benefit, but probably not.

No one questioned this. It was what we had always done. The system was rightly changed because it was unfair on those in private accommodation where no rent rebate scheme existed.

Now the same family which used to enjoy subsidised rents which no one howled about is having to pay the full market rate for their three- or four-bedroom house, which we know in Guernsey is an eye-watering amount. To compensate they are given income support to top up what they earn at work and suddenly people call foul.

It’s as simple as that. Some urban myths really need debunking.

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