Friday, 8 November 2013

Clothier? Think Twice

Many of my politically interested friends are pleased to see that this week The States Of Jersey finally approved, in principle, a referendum on the revised electoral system proposed by the Clothier Commission. There is certainly a strong case for replacing the current mish-mash of accidents of history with a modern and coherently designed process. Nevertheless, despite those around me telling me how good Clothier is in theory, I have yet to see any explanation that actually convinces me it is the right way forward.

The Clothier scheme successfully addresses the equality questions that so many hold against the current complex voting system. Neither voters in their representation, nor politicians in their mandates, have any kind of equality from parish to parish and office to office. Clothier would have a single rank of members, all from similarly-sized constituencies. Job done.

However, I feel Clothier has provided the right answer to the wrong question. In general, equality is a better principle than inequality, but I disagree that it should take priority over effectiveness of representation. Before they started chipping at the current system, I had fourteen representatives, the Constable, a Deputy and twelve Senators. In the urban districts, despite their whinging about getting less than their share, the multi-Deputy districts had sixteen or seventeen representatives, including up to four of their own local ones. So, apart from uncontested elections, we all got to vote for or against over a quarter of our little parliament. That is actually pretty strong democracy, that most of the world would envy, despite the awkward structure benefiting the kind of candidates, that people who read blogs like this would not want. Now, cuts in Senators bring our shares down a little, but I can still look forward to ten votes at the next election. Even so, that is still almost a quarter, a real say in the make-up of the States.

What, in contrast would I have to look forward to on the first election day after an implementation of Clothier? Possibly, one single seat to vote on, and in my particular locality, if it were contested at all, there would still be only one potential winner. Thus, as an avid follower of politics and current affairs, I would find myself denied any significant power to contribute to the success of those I would like to see in government.

All around Jersey, others like me would find the same disengagement foisted upon them. Each district would put forward its popular local bigwig, with or without the bother of seeing off a no-hoper or two, and except in a handful of less predictable town seats, effective democracy would be wiped out. That prospect saddens and scares me.

A “Yes” vote for Clothier would certainly blast the present political establishment, but it would be a suicide bomb that takes our own hopes for better democracy with it. Don't do it!

One Moron, One Vote

I think it was Winston Churchill who pointed out that democracy was a bad system, but everything else that has been tried was even worse. I grew up indoctrinated with the orthodoxy that democracy was, on the contrary, a very good thing. However, living and learning do little to substantiate that opinion, and each passing year deepens my suspicion that the great man was right.

For small groups and trivial questions, simple majority voting is more than adequate. As the voters rise into thousands and millions, though, the scale brings practical problems to all but the most sparing use of general popular votes. Moreover, as the questions become more complex and arcane, the validity of the general lay voters' judgement necessarily declines. Thus, we have to resort to representative democracy, where the nominally empowered voters elect, according to context, a committee, council, board or parliament comprised of those who the voters trust most to study the complex questions they lack the time, if not the capacity to research, and vote appropriately on their behalf. Well, that is what they need to do to make it work, anyway.

Regular readers will have noticed a mundane tendency of this blog to pay more attention to real world outcomes than the beauty of theories. So, the reality is, many voters, especially political voters, do not ask themselves whether they trust their representatives to judge well on their behalf, but instead vote for either the most famous candidate or the one from their loyalty group, without the least attempt to assess their capabilities to make the well-informed and thought-through decisions they are unable to make for themselves.

Equality of rights is a fine and good principle, that I am proud to uphold. Even so, equality of ability is an absurd fancy, so a presumption of it is an unsound basis for anything. The compromise lies in the concept of fairness. Unfortunately, fairness is an inherently subjective matter in a way that equality is not. We all know what honestly seems fair to each of us, but our individual ideas of fairness vary and even conflict. Yet another matter where consensus is probably the best thing, for all the reflexive difficulty in fairly determining it.

One way to resolve the conflict between equal rights to vote and unequal ability to use that vote is to weight the voting, so that those likely to have better judgement count for more. I do not know why political thinkers generally shy away from considering this. The only writer I personally know to have explored it was the mid-20th Century novelist Neville Shute.

Shute once wrote a dystopic fantasy of what Britain and the Commonwealth might have been like in the 1980s, projecting from a time of writing in the early1950s, called “In The Wet”. His premise, reflecting his personal circumstances as the proprietor of an aircraft factory under the Attlee government, was that the UK was a hotbed of creativity and engineering talent dragged down by an electoral system favouring talentless union placemen, while the entrepreneurial spirits had all baled out for colonies with go-ahead leadership, as Shute himself did in real life. In the book, the extra votes went for having a degree or equivalent, working abroad then coming back, being a clergyman, raising a family to adulthood without divorce and a few other indications of being a solid citizen. Shute's vision, rightly or wrongly, was that this would lead to a sharp increase in the quality of candidates being elected.

Sixty or more years on from when Shute flew his kite, the electoral process is a hot topic in the Bailiwick of Jersey. The current electoral districts are gerrymandered to restrict the representation of urban voters to way below pro rata, and the urban voters do their own part to justify their under-representation, by mostly abstaining from voting for the few Members they do get. Despite this manifest apathy, the minority, who do care, have long clamoured for reform.

2013 actually saw a referendum on electoral reform, but the questions were fudged to make a three-way choice between a fine reform, a botch to make matters worse, or leaving things be. Of course, people will be people and the botch narrowly won, fortunately with too small a turn-out to provide any sort of mandate for implementing it. However, one interpretation that could be put on such a result is that the democratic will of the people of Jersey is for an unequal distribution of voting power. This is where Shute's additional vote scheme comes in. With updated and locally appropriate criteria, only politicians rash enough to suggest that anyone of superior judgement would be prejudiced against them could object.

While the principle is not unreasonable, the devil would be in the detail of how the additional votes were assigned. Could we trust the States of Jersey to give the extra power to the wisest voters, or would they settle for something similar to gerrymandered boundaries, maybe one extra for a bank clerk, two for an officer, three for lawyer or accountant and none for a teacher because they are often left-wingers? I fear the latter would be the reality.

If it could be done honestly, it could be a way of improving Jersey politics, by playing on the vanity of the current establishment, to lead them to empower those who they think would support them but don't. Moreover, it would accord with the local cultural expectation, that politics should be for the middle classes. Although I would not back it myself, except as the other choice to a truly awful option, it is at least a different approach to stopping Jersey democracy from being considered an oxymoron, so I offer it as food for thought.