Monday, 21 January 2013

Guernsey: The Decline of the Parish

Most Guernsey parish elections to be uncontested. Just 13 of the 43 Guernsey parish posts up for election in November are to be contested. All other elections, for douzeniers, constables, procureur of the poor and school committees, have the same number of nominees as seats. Eleven douzenier posts and two seats on Les Beaucamps High School Committee will be decided on 2 November. The contested elections are due to be discussed at the parish meetings of the Castel, St Peter Port and St Saviour. The elections will either be decided at those meetings or a polling date will be set. (1)

Most Guernsey parish elections unopposed. Only 10 of the 85 Guernsey parish roles up for election will be contested. Six douzenier posts and four seats on the St Martin's School Committee are due to be discussed at parish meeting on Wednesday. And one position, for a constable in the Forest, has yet to receive any nominations. All other elections - for constables, douzeniers, constables and school committees positions - have the same number of candidates as open seats. The contested elections, in St Saviour and St Martin, will be decided at the parish meetings or a polling date will be set. (2)

There is widespread apathy in Guernsey on Parish elections, which have no effect on the outcome of the general elections for the States. The
Constables came out of the States in 1844, when an order in council replaced Constables as States members with Douzaine representatives; it being though, possibly, that the task of being Constable and in the States was too onerous. The structure is also quite different. While the term "Constable" is used, in Guernsey there is a Senior Constable and Junior Constable, and no Honorary Police system in operation; all demands of policing - as for instance for events - are expenses born by the States and taxpayers.

The 10 Douzaine representatives (representing parish authorities) were removed from the States in the 2004 constitutional reform. Since then, the voting patterns have been consistently low on all Parish elections.

While elections of Constables in Jersey are uncommon, in Guernsey they are not only uncommon, they also attract paltry voter turnout. The notion that "There will be life in the Jersey Parishes if the Constables cease to sit in the States." which I read recently could only have been written by someone who has turned a blind eye to developments in Guernsey. Note how the douzenier votes, which until 2004 were perhaps closest to a Parish Constable in the Jersey States, have ceased to be contested.

The results of the Election of a Constable held in the largest Parish (St Peter Port) in 17th November 2010 was contested. The results display just how much "life" there is in the election process. The last general election commanded a 70% turnout; the Parish election commanded a 3.5% turnout. The lowest Parish turnout in Jersey for a Constables election can do much better than that, but if the Constables are removed from the States, never mind the rhetoric that it will "bring life", Guernsey shows us what we probably should expect.

The following was duly elected: Mr. Dennis Henry Le Moignan : 127 votes. Unsuccessful Mrs. Jennifer Mary Tasker : 89 votes. Total votes cast were: 217. There were 1 spoilt papers. The percentage poll was 3.5%

In 2012, Channel Television picked up on the voting patterns in a story entitled "Election Apathy":

Parish elections are being held throughout the island tonight. Douzainiers and Constables are being appointed for all ten parishes. But in all the parishes except two, the elections will be uncontested, with just one candidate for each seat. Only in St Martin's and St Saviour's will a vote
have to be held.

Locally, parish officials admit many islanders were more interested in seeing Barack Obama secure a second term, than they are in their own parish elections. But Constables and Douzainiers say they make decisions affecting all aspects of parish life, from deciding who gets liquor and Sunday trading licences, to approving parish events, and inspecting everything from hedges to quarries. They are also the first point of call if parishioners have complaints about parish-level issues. (3)

In the event, St Saviour residents turned out as the Guernsey parish officials elections took place. The story noted that "Voter turnout is traditionally low, but on this occasion 87 residents, more than 5% of the electoral roll voted." That's really demonstrating "There will be life in the Jersey Parishes if the Constables cease to sit in the States." Senior constable Andrew Courtney said it was the highest turnout in recent years!

Matters were slightly better in an election in 2010, where a contest in St Saviour had a turnout of 19% of the electoral role with 903 votes cast. That's still way below even the bottom end of the Jersey turnout for elections.

Shane Langlois, the Chairman of the Douzaine Council, speaking in 2008 said that:

 "Once upon a time the douzaine representative was the voice of the people in the States of Guernsey. Casting your vote for douzenier was the only way to have some influence on what the States of Guernsey was doing as the rest of it consisted of rectors and Jurats. In the last hundred years it has changed dramatically and for the good I think with the directly elected deputies a very healthy development."

He thinks something does need to be done to address the problems of apathy suggesting that the relationship between parishes and the States needs to be redefined as "it is very open ended and needs to be sorted". (4)

And also speaking in 2008, John Foster, the Dean of the Douzaine in the Parish of St Sampson puts the low turnout  down to "general apathy on the island".

He explained the current system in place: "Years ago it was decided that the douzaine elections would all be on the same evening to try and encourage people as the general election. "Unfortunately just the general apathy seems to have crept in and people just aren't interested anymore in coming to the meetings and voting."

Figures at the general election in April 2008 put the population of the parish at 8,880 and those on the electoral roll at 4,848 meaning that the 26 who turned out was 0.54% of the electoral roll and 0.3% of the population. (5)

John Foster sounded this warning note: "People are going to see the apathy and say why should we bother putting ourselves up voluntary to do many hours of work for the parish and the community when no one seems to be bothered in backing us."

And Deputy Shane Langlois said turnout is traditionally low but it is a chance to make a difference in the community. He said: "The parishes are the only counterweight we've got to the States and the Civil Service." (6)

That is something worth bearing in mind as well, that not only will option A remove the Constables, most likely with the election apathy which is endemic in Guernsey, there will also be little counterweight to stop the central Government throwing its weight around, and deciding on matters which effect Parishioners.

The Deputies will represent a District, not a Parish, and the Deputies available for you to choose to vote for may not even live in your Parish at
all. What connection will they have to Parish problems, and bringing the voice of the Parish to the States?

And the question raised by John Foster may well also raise its ugly head: "People are going to see the apathy and say why should we bother putting ourselves up voluntary to do many hours of work for the parish and the community when no one seems to be bothered in backing us."

"There will be life in the Jersey Parishes if the Constables cease to sit in the States.". Not if Guernsey is anything to go by!



Anonymous said...

So does this mean you prefer B or if not C to Option A?
Personally I'd rather have real democaracy (C) than more of the same (C) or a set up that reduces it (B).

Sam Mézec said...



A few things you haven't taken account of here -

Firstly, whilst most commentators agree that the Parish system in Guernsey has been in decline for the past few years, they also point to the fact that the Parish system was much less a part of life in Guernsey to start with than it is in Jersey. You rightly point out that they don't have the tradition of honorary policing in Guernsey. That won't die out in Jersey just because the Constables aren't in the States.

Secondly, if reform Option A goes through, all the Constable elections will be held on the same day as the general election. That will boost turn out in a way that doesn't happen in Guernsey. But even with the status quo, our election turnouts for other Parish roles are still pitiful. I remember an election in my Parish for some ambiguous role that I specifically chose to abstain in because I was just not well informed enough to make a decision (and this comes from someone who usually pays very close attention in all elections). I recall the JEP later reporting the turn out to be at around 2% (can't verify that, just going from memory of course).

So the Parish system in Jersey still suffers from that apathy even though there is that link to central government. The reason for this is because the Parishes aren't vibrant and exciting enough to enthuse the people to take part en masse. That is their biggest problem, not the threat to their link to the States. In fact, there is a good argument to say that if the link is severed, they can use it as an excuse to re-energise and re-invigorate the system in a way that is desperately needed. If they fail to do that, it will be their own fault, which is why I want in the next few months for the Comité des Connétables to come up with some sort of document/ vision of what the Parish system could look like if it was separated from the States. Though I suspect they won't bother because they'd rather not inadvertently convince people to vote for Option A.

Anonymous said...

We have to recognise that the Parishes are undemocratic and unrepresentative. They are run by a small clique of those that like to exercise authority. No attempt is made to widen that group or engage further. The demise of the Jersey Parish system will be no loss, only an advance for democracy.

What is desperately needed are States Members who can think constructively about island issues. Constables usually think no further than the horizon of their parish. Such parochialism is a detriment to wider policy making. It’s a real problem for the Establishment, concerned as they are about the fate of Finance. Constables do not share that interest instinctively and are kept on side by virtue of their general social conservatism. They are a guaranteed voting block for the ruling group and its policies in pursuit of business interests generally and Finance in particular. Essentially this is why Option B is the one government supports. The Chief Minister, Ian Gorst, expressed his opinions clearly to a specially convened meeting of the Electoral Commission on 8th August 2011, where he clearly supported the retention of Constables. We must assume this is the government line, even though expressed as a personal position.

The Referendum questions have been designed to ensure that Option B triumphs. A significant vote for B will be used as an argument that the public have legitimised the retention of Constables. This in spite of the fact that their retention drives a coach and horse through the principle of equal size of constituency and equality of votes. The Venice Convention, first highlighted by academics reporting to the Commission, have made this point clear. What is good for New Democracies like Kosovo or Bosnia should apply equally to places like Jersey and the Channel Islands in general.

Legitimation through the Referendum will be used as a device to deflect possible legal action in the UK Courts (a la Sark), the Privy Council and European Court of Human Rights. Constables will be retained as part of the “margin of appreciation”.

The fundamental criticism remains: those in District 5, the wealthy Country Districts of St Ouen, St Mary, St John and St Lawrence, will have 9 representatives – 5 New Deputies elected by the District and 4 Constables. This is manifest over-representation of the Country and the social interests that dominate there. By contrast the Town of St Helier will have 10 New Deputies and 1 Constable. So it gerrymandering all round.

So far, those with whom the decision ultimately rests, that is States Members, have remained remarkably quiet. There were quite a few present at the final presentation by the Electoral Commission, so they are attentive. Just watch the Turkeys make a Dogs Dinner out of the recommendations and Referendum, once they feel the butcher’s knife call Christmas.