Sunday, 30 May 2010

Democracy, Principles and Sacrifices

This week's “swivel-eyed, frothy-mouthed rant”(Thanks, Other Exile) is going to be more introspective. Although, I am going to keep to my self-set brief that this blog is about content, not me, and draw some general conclusions from my musings.

I have been an active member of the Jersey Democratic Alliance for some years. Although I am temperamentally inclined to stand up for myself and be counted, irrespective of who is with me, I understand the importance of collective action and teamwork, both pragmatically, as a means of achieving ends, and morally, by fulfilling my human nature as a member of a social species. Thus, I have embraced the opportunity to work with like-minded people on trying to influence the development of Jersey into a better place, or at least defend against its decline into a worse one. It can be frustrating to actually achieve so little, for so much effort invested, but one never knows when one will cross a tipping point,and it all start to come good.

Because, by and large, the JDA is a team of fairly like minds, there is a lot of consensus on how we do what. However, we are not realistically going to all agree about everything all of the time. If somebody is having frequent disagreements with the majority of other members about big issues of principle, there comes a point where it has to be admitted that they are out of sympathy with the party generally, and it would be hypocrisy to cling on when the decent course would be resignation. Occasional differences of opinion are inevitable, though, and are the fuel on which meetings and discussions run. Sometimes one can be really disappointed with a particular decision, but the disappointment has to be weighed against one's commitment to the larger long-term project of the party. Were it obligatory to quit any time one did not get one's own way, the party would soon dwindle to nothing. They show must go on, even if you have to sing a song you don't really like, now and then.

I have been having to keep those priorities in the front of my mind this week. Neither myself, nor the party's other main spin-doctor, liked the principle of putting up a sitting States Member in a by-election. For one thing, it seemed a waste of time and effort to run a campaign, when the inevitable result, win or lose, will be that same person in the States after the election. Beyond that, it is an abuse of process: Because our member is in the States anyway, voting for him is tantamount to spoiling your paper with the message “none of the above”, when the ostensible purpose of the election is to choose a new member to fill the vacancy. However, the will of our colleagues was almost unanimous, that Geoff must run, so we had to accept it, or flounce out in a sulk.

I mentioned the ostensible purpose. What changes things is, that it is becoming very clear that many of the public want to project other purposes onto this election; to make it an opinion poll or unofficial referendum on some of the candidates' pet issues, rather than just selecting them for their fitness for the office. In my last article, I argued that it was about choosing the best candidate, and that Stuart Syvret was no longer up to the job for numerous reasons. I never knew who, if anyone, reads this blog, but I suddenly found out that I have intelligent and articulate readers, who retain complete confidence in, and loyalty to Mr Syvret, and put up a forceful defence of his position. The best comment thread I have ever seen on any blog, to be honest. And their conclusion was that no, it was very much about the pet issues.

If a voter wants to keep things as they are, then it is clear that the establishment's man is Francis le Gresley. I think he has the background and ability to make a good politician, but the taint of Rod Bryans' endorsement rings alarm bells about his true sympathies. Or, if they want a right-winger from outside the clique, there is always Patrick Ryan. If the voter wants protest and rebellion, then it is equally clear that Stuart Syvret is flying that flag for them to rally to. But suppose the voter wants orderly and constitutional progress. Nick le Cornu has awesome intellectual capacity and a tenacious commitment to his very left-wing ideals, but most people are daunted by his cleverness, out of sympathy with his aims, or both, so he is an unlikely candidate to succeed. So, there is a gap for a serious progressive candidate in this by-election. Despite the absurdity of fighting for a place he already has, Geoff can be that serious progressive, and now that their private falling out has released him from any loyalties towards Syvret, he has stepped into the breach.

As a democrat, I have had to accept firstly, the will of the party, to put Geoff up, and secondly, the will of the public, that it is about more than who gets the job. So I have been typing with gritted teeth to call for a vote for Southern. I am not happy to sacrifice my vote on who the new States Member is , just to send a message, but it is now obvious that sending a message is really what this by-election is about, in the eyes of my fellow islanders. So, I shall have to put my democratic principles ahead of my desire to vote for the new member, and vote Southern. If you want serious progress, I invite you to send that message too, even if, in your heart, you would have liked to vote for Syvret because he is a rebel, or Maguire or Risoli because they are nice men

Sunday, 16 May 2010

He's Just A Very Naughty Boy

“Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!” This quote from a classic British comedy film serves as a succinct paraphrase of Stuart Syvret's verbose blog. (Link on the left, if you have got the patience for it.) Of course, another clichéd witticism is “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't really out to get you!”, and in his case, given the number of important (and unimportant) people Syvret has taken pains to deliberately offend over the years, they very probably are really out to get him.

Now Syvret is seeking to renew his mandate as Senator in a by-election. I have voted for him in every election he has stood in, in the past, but this time I have lost confidence in him as a political representative, and shall not do so. I shall explain why not, in the hope that none (neither?) of my readers do so, either.

Mr. Syvret is a magnificent orator able to imbue the many home truths he tells with immense depth and gravity. He is also bold in lifting stones to show the creatures of darkness lurking beneath them. That much I admire, and am happy to praise. Indeed, were that the whole story, I would be writing a different blog canvassing for him. However, the first reason that I have lost my trust in him is that he will tell untruths, be they malicious lies or merely reckless errors, with the same gravity, and identify the wrong people as the creatures he found under the stones. If he will do this where I know he is wrong, how many of the other claims, that I have only his word for, are also false? A very occasional mistake, promptly and apologetically retracted might be forgiveable, but Syvret has launched a plethora of disputed accusations, and stubbornly stood by every word.

(I lost faith in his veracity when he selected local blogger “Tom Gruchy” as his Victim of the Week. Syvret confidently asserted that “Tom” was a certain mutual acquaintance of ours, who has a very distinctive writing style quite unlike “Tom's”, and went on to make plausible but very private and personal revelations about long-past romantic rivalries. It took me until some time afterwards to work out who “Tom Gruchy” really is, but Syvret's readiness to denounce him, for what was plainly another man's scandal, gave me the measure of his own credibility.)

Syvret's long and ineffectual reign over Jersey's Health department ended when he unveiled severe failings in our Children's Service, despite his own senior civil servants denials. His accusations of a conspiracy to conceal the truth from him may or may not be true, but they are at least in accordance with public perceptions of how the upper levels of administration work, here and throughout the English-speaking world, in public and corporate sectors alike. Those who worked on the front line of his Department, however, say that they remember him as taking no direct interest in them, and being content to rule entirely through his allegedly treacherous mandarins. Anyway, once the relationship broke down, Syvret was forced from office in a way that cast a very bad light on Jersey's Civil Service and Council of Ministers, and gave him a large and genuine grievance. THE BY-ELECTION IS NOT ABOUT HIS SACKING AS HEALTH MINISTER. Even if, like me, you think he was wronged by it, that is not the proposition we shall be voting on.

The aggrieved ex-minister then turned to justifying himself on the internet. He has given publicity to various serious and credible people who have also had careers crash apparently as a result of revealing or disputing deficiencies in Jersey's Children's Services. It is a tenable theory that they have all been let down by the same flaws in the system, but Syvret and his disciples would go further, and conclude that they are all victims of one overarching conspiracy. The improbability of this is the second reason I have lost trust in him. THE BY-ELECTION IS NOT ABOUT WHETHER YOU BELIEVE THE SYSTEM TO BE DEFECTIVE, NOR WHETHER YOU BELIEVE IN A GRAND CONSPIRACY. Tentatively, I would say “Yes” and “No” respectively, but there is evidence against both views, too. Whichever, we shall not be voting on it.

Other serious and credible people, elsewhere, are casting doubts on some of Syvret's star witnesses. This muddies the waters. I would contend that each and every claim or accusation, of crime, or conspiracy, or incompetence, or corruption, needs to stand or fall on its own merit, and nothing can either be proved by its proponent being right about something else, nor disproved by its proponent being wrong about something else. There is clearly not enough information in the public domain for anyone to have more than a gut feeling that something is wrong, or that things are all right really, if only the troublemakers would shut up. So, justice has not been seen to be done for or to anybody caught in the linked webs of the Children's Service and Haut de la Garenne scandals. Neither the alleged criminals, nor the alleged concealers of their crimes, nor the supposedly incompetent investigators, nor the alleged victims of abuse themselves. THE BY-ELECTION CANNOT GIVE JUSTICE TO ANY OF THOSE DENIED IT. You cannot vindicate anybody by your vote, so don't let it distort your judgement.

Another reason for losing trust in Syvret as a politician is his disinclination to work constructively with anyone else. Parliamentary politics needs teamwork, and instead he turns viciously on all those he should be working with. His disloyalty and rebelliousness as a minister could be justified by open differences of policy and principle, but then he extends the same enmity to the progressive cause, too. He has publicly vowed to destroy the JDA, for instance. He started by claiming that he knew for a fact that two known paedophiles were JDA members, although he shut up when challenged about how he found out they were paedophiles or how he obtained the JDA membership list. No doubt he will be back with more lies when he gets around to it, though. In the meantime, he has just been generally unsupportive. Even so he pulled strings with his few friends in the party to censor mention of him on a JDA web page. None of the independent progressives ever get any backing from him, either. A VOTE FOR SYVRET IS A VOTE AGAINST PROGRESS AND REFORM.

Even worse than his refusal to work constructively, for six months, he refused to make himself available for the political work he was being paid well for, at all. The charges he fled from facing were for relatively minor offences, and the more serious one was eminently defensible, so his flight was a grave error of judgement, as well as disappointing cowardice from a man who offered himself as our brave champion. So, he shamelessly claimed £20k of public money to be deliberately useless. Now he claims it was to force a by-election, costing another £50k or so of public money. But he could have resigned back then and saved the wasted £20k, had the by-election been the real objective. Putting everyone to the trouble and expense of a by-election in the hope of being re-elected, when he already had the seat do what political work he would from, is an irresponsible sacrifice of the public interest to his personal vanity, anyway, be it part of the plan or mere consequence of the flight. A VOTE FOR SYVRET IS A VOTE FOR PUTTING VANITY BEFORE THE PUBLIC INTEREST. Discourage others from following his silliness, by punishing him with votes for anyone else but him.

Syvret's own excuse for his dereliction is that he has been doing some “investigative journalism”. True, wild accusations continue to appear on his blog. Every action of the officials on his hate list gets interpreted as another piece of the Grand Conspiracy. However, given that this man will shamelessly lie about others on the progressive side of Jersey politics he ostensibly is part of himself, can he be trusted to tell the truth about establishment figures, when not backed by quotes from more reliable sources? Or is he simply blackening the names of everybody he doesn't like, and he is an unfriendly man who doesn't like many people, out of sheer spite? He seems to believe that anyone who cannot afford to bring a defamation action against a respondent who manifestly cannot repay even the court costs must automatically be guilty of anything. This is the old idea of trial by ordeal revived in a more urbane style, not truth or justice. A VOTE FOR SYVRET IS A VOTE FOR PUTTING GOSSIP BEFORE JUSTICE.

The thing that disgusts and annoys myself and others most about Syvret, though is his sheer hypocrisy. He started from the widely shared position that political interference in criminal justice is wrong and inherently corrupt. He was right to question the apparent pressure on the police not to pursue certain corruption and malfeasance cases. However, he has then gone on to rage at the police and allege corruption, because they have not prosecuted anyone on the strength of his hearsay allegations. He is another politician who should be keeping a discreet separation from the judicial process, not trying to call the shots as to who is and is not charged. Instead he calls for the heads of all who stand in the way of his hate campaigns. A VOTE FOR SYVRET IS A VOTE FOR HYPOCRISY.

What the by-election is really about is to put a competent politician, who commands the support of more of the public than the alternatives, into the States to do a job for us for a year or so. I expect that there will be a good choice of old hands and promising newcomers, but, I fear, also a fringe of fruitloops. Stuart Syvret has earned his place amongst the last, by his consistent lack of judgement in the last year or two. Once, he looked like tomorrow's man. Now, having dismally failed to fulfil that apparent potential, he is not even yesterday's man. We must all send this noxious ball of narcissism and spite the message that Jersey wants better from our politicians, by voting for others.

There are a little band of loyal disciples who have been overjoyed at the second coming of their beloved ex-carpenter. Another classic British comedy film sums up their error, though: “He's not the Messiah, he's just a very naughty boy!”

Friday, 14 May 2010

Strong Democracy, not Strong Government

The traditional British disrespect for our politicians being what it is, most people probably start trying to imagine what 650 nooses look like, when they hear the term “hung parliament”. On the other hand, many politicians and political journalists see it as a different kind of nightmare. Partisans of an affiliation with a hope of power get very enthusiastic about “strong government”, as they would. The hung parliament, of course, does not deliver that. So, we have to read and hear all the cant about weak government and market uncertainty and The End Of Civilisation As We Know It and all the rest.

Anyway, my home is in semi-autonomous Jersey, and although the goings-on in Westminster still matter here, their effects are a little more indirect. We have our own little parliament to worry about, instead. For any outsiders who may have stumbled across this blog, Jersey has one small formal party and a mass of nominally independent politicians dividing into about two-thirds in an informal Tory grouping holding power and one third in a slightly more openly organised Liberal grouping in opposition. The complex electoral system discourages voting and frustrates change, so the unofficial Tories have been entrenched in government since time immemorial. Recent reforms have aggravated the problem by marginalising most politicians. There used to be a Committee based system that put almost every politician to work in government, irrespective of their leanings, but that has been replaced by a select group of ministers and an impotent squad of backbenchers. I don't think it works half as well, personally.

Jersey and mainland Britain do share widespread feelings that their respective parliaments do not represent, nor even listen to their publics. Moreover, the two party system, official there and unofficial here, corrupts the houses by inducing members to vote against measures that they would have supported on their own merits, or for ones they would have opposed, just to spite the other party and boost their own.

I would suggest that the optimum would, therefore, be a four party system. Four parties each gaining 20% to 30% of the votes in a left, centre-left, centre right, right spectrum would always have to cooperate to form viable coalitions, and would be discouraged from veering into extremism. Mainland Britain already potentially has the four in Labour, Liberal, Conservative and UKIP. These days, there is not much centre-right about the Conservatives, but having to compromise with the Liberal Democrats will force them to modify the policies they actually govern with, even if they dream of a harsher style in their hearts. Had there been a Labour-Liberal coalition instead, there would have been a different set of compromises, but once again they would have forced each other to keep to ideas likely to command wide support.

Jersey only has the centre-left JDA for now, however. Thus, Jersey voters, unless they are really sure they want to support the JDA, vote for independents, who mostly turn out to be conservatives in practice. Plenty of voters are disappointed in how their choices turn out, but without the clear indication of general direction provided by formal parties, those choices can only be more guesswork than anything. Clear party allegiances would make what policies they could vote for or against much clearer to voters, and especially the potential voters who are too overwhelmed by the difficulty of deciding, and make abstentions the poll-topper in most electoral districts,. In a multi-party democracy, where the expectation is for a coalition, and a government can fall by throwing away the support of its junior partner, each party would have to pitch for the backing of its rivals, as well as the voters, and so would have to refrain from plans that were not moderate and serious.

When Jersey had its committee system government, it effectively functioned as a coalition of everyone, and, although it occasionally vacillated irritatingly on difficult dilemmas, it generally had legendary stability. It is unlikely to return, however, so we must look forward to getting what we now have, instead, right. Drawing the Council of Ministers from a wider base may cramp individual styles a little, but it would probably result in a concern for leading the public where they actually wanted to go replacing the current arrogance and hubris; If so, this would be a huge improvement. The only way to drive the creation of a more diverse government, though, is parties and party coalitions.

So, let us have strong democracy instead of strong government, and create the parties by which we can be counted when we stand up for what we believe in.