Should I join a political party?

I don’t know.

Guernsey has had occasional political parties, probably for as long as there has been an elected government. (Don’t the menus at Petit Bistro mention something about it being the HQ of the Guernsey Labour Party in the 1970s?)

But we’re mostly a government of independents. Each of us stands on our own manifesto; each of us votes in line with our own conscience.

I like that. I’d go so far as to say I’ve been spoilt by it. It is an immense privilege to be able to stay true to yourself in every vote – if I had to take a party line, I would struggle enormously. I couldn’t do it.

But that’s just me. You need to do your own research, and weigh up the pros and cons for yourself.

There are at least three things (two negatives, one positive) which I’d encourage you to think about if you’re weighing up whether to join a party, or whether to be an independent. The negatives are about policies and organisational structure, but they both boil down to the question – what would joining a party say about you and your values? The positive is about resources and support.

So – what would joining a party say about you and your values?

In most places with well-established party systems, this would principally be a question of policies. What does this party stand for? Does it want to achieve the same kind of things I want to achieve? Bear in mind that, in four years, lots of things will happen that you can’t even imagine, and you’ll need to respond to those. A party might not have a ready-made policy for every situation, but it’ll have a kit of values and principles (and economic theories, and political ideologies, and so on) that it brings to each situation. If those values generally reflect your own, it might be the right party for you.

But I get the impression that the parties which are forming here at the moment are looser associations than most parties elsewhere. So maybe there will be much more freedom of conscience within parties, when it comes to supporting your preferred policy solution, than you would get elsewhere.

If so, the question is less about policies and more about organisational structure. Hear me out on this one.

A person, or an organisation, doesn’t just tell you about its values by setting out what it wants to achieve. It also tells you by how it plans to achieve those. (Think about the difference between a victory won by deceit or violence, compared to one won peacefully or honestly.)

In the case of an individual, the “how” depends on the character and ethics of the person. In the case of an organisation, like a party, that character and ethos is created through good (or bad) organisational structures.

If I joined a party, this is where I’d be asking all the questions. I would want to know who controls access to the party, and how it is decided if a person can join. In short, I’d want to be sure that the gateway into the party would prevent people whose behaviour I’d find objectionable or whose values I’d find questionable. Because once we’re both in the party, we’re linked together. What that person says or does reflects on me, and on anyone else who belongs to the party.

For similar reasons, I’d want to know that the party is capable of dealing with members who suddenly start behaving in a way that is inconsistent with what the party stands for – that there are appropriate and fair structures in place to deal with poor conduct, which might even include asking people to stand down if need be. Fairness matters, because you have to ask yourself, “how would I feel if I was on the receiving end of this process?” If everything is done at the whim of the Party chair, for example, it might all be a bit too arbitrary to put your trust in.

I suspect that all the parties we’ll see at this election will have pretty immature organisational structures. What they’ve got might be good, and it might improve with time, but it would certainly make me wary.

But! You don’t have to be a cynic about parties just because I am. I can also see the value that people find in them.

Island-wide voting means that you will need to reach a lot of people in a very short space of time. It will almost certainly be easier to do this as part of a team, than it will be to do it on your own. Parties offer a ready-made mutual support network, and a clearly identifiable thread which binds a group of candidates together, meaning that if a voter has taken the time to read up on one party member, they’ll (probably) know a little bit about you all. Of course that cuts both ways, but in the tight timeframe you’re working with, it might be a very helpful shortcut.

The bottom line, as always, is do your own research. Make sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for, and know where your boundaries are. I don’t think joining a party is a uniquely good or bad thing – it’s a calculated trade-off and, until this election actually happens, all of us are simply guessing whether that trade-off will be worth it or not.

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