Imagine a community with no political party brands. No Conservatives, no Labour – no political leaders and elections with no party policies. Can you envision an electoral system with no party logos or slogans, no safe seats and no activists? A place where elected representatives vote on a matter of personal principle rather than being “whipped” in line with party politics.
Does this sound appealing or does it sound confusing and unworkable? Well, this community, “the States of Deliberation”, does exist. It’s alive and well in the British Crown Dependency of Guernsey – part of the Channel Islands.
However, this way of doing politics could be about to change. Guernsey is holding its first ever referendum on the island’s electoral process on October 10 2018.
All of Guernsey’s 38 members of parliament, otherwise known as deputies, are independent figures. Deputies stand in elections as individuals rather than parties. They present a personally developed, concise manifesto, which outlines personal characteristics such as educational background, personality traits, professional and individual experiences.
Often, they set out the broad values that will guide them if elected. During the 2016 general election, one member of parliament proposed that if elected they would be “challenging, questioning, independent, defend the island’s heritage and eccentrically different”.
“I go to church, and I’ve studied law and I’ve worked in a recruitment agency,” said another. “I believe the island should have the best possible education system it can afford, improved health systems, support children’s services and family life and ensure we continue to have a balanced economy towards tourism and banking. Trust me and I’ll do my best for you.”
However, something is often missing from the manifestos and campaign material – and it’s not just the affiliation with a political party. Few candidates get into specifics about the actions they would actually take if elected. According to several parliamentarians, that only gets discussed after a general election – “often 18 months after polling day”. That’s how long it generally takes for government committees such as the Committee for Home Affairs or the Committee for Education, Sport and Culture to be formed and establish a policy agenda.
Deputies do often form informal transient alliances – collections of constantly changing coalitions that are sometimes seen as quasi-political parties. These groupings are based on prominent issues of the day such education reform, housing and transport links. However, these unofficial transient alliances currently have no “party” name, structure, ideology or identity. Nor are they generally publicised to the wider population, functioning largely behind closed doors. So the personalities and profiles of deputies take precedence over policy and party in Guernsey.
In October, voters get to choose whether to switch from voting for a candidate in their local constituency to island-wide voting. Each citizen could be given the same number of votes as there are deputy seats and could elect the whole parliament from candidates across the island.
In a recent study, we found many members of the Guernsey government believe that if the public opt for island-wide voting, it could open the path for political parties to form on Guernsey. Formalised alliances or parties would allow deputies to stand on a shared platform, campaign with a collective set of focused policies and make the practice of governing more efficient, effective and proactive. This in turn could simplify the electoral process for voters by proving greater clarity of what each party stands for. Voters might also get a better of idea of what deputies stand for before they elect them. That, in turn, could make them more accountable in office.
But it’s not known if the people of Guernsey actually want all this. There was a record turnout of 72% in the last election in 2016, suggesting voters actually quite like the independent, personal touch. The majority of voters between 18 and 24 told us they didn’t have an appetite for political parties and value Guernsey’s current approach to politics.
And, at least from the outside looking in, they seem to run more positive campaigns with less mudslinging than an average election. As they head to the ballot in October, Guernsey’s voters will surely be thinking about the divisive nature of party politics in the US, or even closer to home in the UK, where two parties dominate. The grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the Channel.