Friday, May 21, 2010

Notes from a Small Island

Hello from Jersey! I am here courtesy of Jersey Citizens Advice Bureau as the guest speaker at their AGM. Being a `Third Sector' Columnist gets me to some unusual places. It all started as was staring at my empty post-CEO in-try in April I get an email from the CEO of the Bureau saying he likes my column will I come and speak? We quickly agree terms and here I am. For once I am not riding solo and Katy is along the ride, leaving the youngsters with Granny.

So what of Jersey? With my own knowledge limited to 80s TV hit `Bergerac', I had to go into research mode - and what I found was actually rather interesting. 90,000 people live here. Half are indiginous, half immigrants. Many British but lots of Poles and Portugese. Very much `two-nations' with a wealthy mainstream paying on average 360,000 pounds for a home and lots of people eking out on minimum wage. Financially, although full of the super-wealthy who pay low taxes, they are having a recession here with public services being cut back up to 5% a year for the next two years.

Which makes the politics fascinating. This is, for all intents and purposes, an independent country, with, since 1204, its own 53-strong Parliament - the `States of Jersey' and a distinct legal system. There is no party-system so its a Parliament of `independents' with all the benefits and troubles that brings. The Government here runs every aspect of what both local and national government administer in the UK. All 53 politicians are full-time. Some are elected on the basis of locality, others are cross-Island. It is a bit like having a statelet based on the City of Cambridge - which raises challenging questions to sceptics of ultra-devolution. If it works here, at this scale, why not, say a virtually independent Manchester or Suffolk?

I hear more from my host, the CEO of Citizens Advice, Francis le Gresley who is standing in a by-election for senator. Elected island-wide he is up against 8 others, including someone currently going through the courts, essentially for saying things he oughtn't about other people on the Island. Because he doesn't have a party machine Francis has to run his own campaign and, somehow, craft a message that targets his core vote (essentially the less well-off) while not putting off the comfortable middle.

On probing I find that while there isn't a party-system there are distinct groupings. The left is the smallest, the centre is substantial but lacking leadership and the right is in control. Given what the Island is up against, Francis is firmly of the view that all strands need to work more closely together to reach agreement on the difficult choices ahead.

The AGM itself goes well. It's well-attended and Francis is clearly a respected figure as 20 year CEO of Citizens Advice here. My bit goes down well. I have come to enjoy public speaking and seem now to be doing more and more. It's in a strange space between story-telling and stand-up. You need to hold on to your audience and you don't always know yourself where this is going to take you.

I have a visual `show' - some slides with photos on - which I often use - but each time is always very different to the last. Depending on the audience. This particular group appeared very formal, a bit older and disproportionately female. No swearing I immediately decided. A couple of gags about the Island's local newspaper and we were away, followed by questions and a lot of chat afterwards. I sell 8 copies of my book and people seem to go away happy.

Afterwards, out with Francis, who spent a career in banking before taking over the CAB 20 years ago, I ask him about what makes Jersey special. He cites the sea and the values of the place, which he seeks, through his candidacy, to uphold. I wish the future senator luck before bidding goodnight.

No comments: