March 15, 2012

Gearing up for an election

Guernsey is preparing to head to the polls to choose their next 45 deputies and indications are that this could be the States’ first ‘social media’ election. This shift could help to engage younger voters in the political process and change the way politicians communicate with the public.

Young people and politics in Guernsey enjoy an uneasy relationship for many different reasons. These issues aren’t unique to Guernsey as democracies throughout the world are struggling to engage with young people. However there are several factors unique to island politics that create barriers to participation. Despite these underlying structural political issues, there is also cause for optimism.

Firstly it cannot be stressed enough that the problem is not young people. Young people are passionate about the issues that affect them and have strong opinions across a wide range of topics. Whether it is education, welfare, jobs or the environment young people have valuable and insightful views. However they are frustrated by what can be an arcane and remote political process that all too often moves at a glacial pace. Young people see the issues important to them slip further and further down the agenda, and the solutions to important problems fall further and further away. Naturally this breeds apathy and distance between young voters and the politicians that are meant to serve them.

As with young people, the States isn’t entirely to blame. The States has taken bold steps forward in engaging young people. By lowering the voting age to 16 Guernsey is ahead of almost the entire democratic world when it comes to constitutional empowerment of young voters. Sadly however, many young people won’t go to the polls due to apathy and a lack of interest in what the States is doing. They might be interested in the issues but find the States’ solutions unpalatable and incomprehensible. A large part of the problem is down to communication.

At Orchard we have been involved with the @ The States project. Though this initiative has been very successful at increasing awareness of how the States operates it cannot remove the larger roadblocks to engaging and communicating with young people. To its credit, the States isn’t blind to these communication problems. The recent Scrutiny Committee report “Public Engagement in The States of Guernsey” makes it clear that the States isn’t doing enough to keep the public informed. A new States will have to take action to tackle these issues and with a fierce democratic mandate will have no other option.

Recently a slew of Deputies and prospective candidates have appeared on Twitter and other social media and to a large extent have begun to break down the barriers between the public and politicians. In their droll asides, many Deputies admit to being as baffled as the public by some of the States’ more perplexing traditions and policy roadblocks. Whilst a cynic would suggest that this is naked electioneering, an optimist would hope that new forms of engagement would lead to a more open and transparent States. I tend to fall in the latter camp, and hope that in future many Deputies continue their social media activities long beyond the close of the polls.

The local media has enthusiastically embraced social media and the in the run up to the election have created the #gsy2012 Twitter hashtag. This will allow people to link up and discuss the important political issues that arise during the election. Twitter users can debate and discuss the issues with fellow voters and politicians. It can help people stay informed and enrich the debate.  Social media will help to connect local voters during the election, and the means of communication they discover can continue into the future. The Guernsey Press has started to run a Guardian-style live news blog that covers major political events. Such online innovations will help to improve communication between the politicians and the people.

Better communication and projects such as @ The States will make young people more aware of the States and how it works, but it can’t be a substitute for engagement. In my experience young people get involved with politics due to the ideologies and the communal activism of political parties. There is wide, and in the context of Guernsey, justified scepticism towards party politics.  Guernsey voters favour the rugged individualism of independent Deputies and are uncomfortable with the alleged cronyism, reneged promises and infighting associated with political parties. However it is difficult for young, political islanders to get enthused by individual politicians working in the ideological no-man’s land that is Guernsey politics.

However just because there are no parties, it does not mean that there is no place for activism. Social media had brought like-minded people together across the world and given them a unique platform.  In Guernsey with its strong civic society, there is no reason why it can’t be the same. Single-issue, non-partisan campaign groups empowered by social media could serve as an alternative to party politics on the island. I would hope that many young people would get behind that.

Posted by Laurence Makins.

Share this article