What are the risks?

I have written a fair amount about risks in the sections on family and health. The trouble with risks is that you often don’t know you’re taking one until something goes wrong – so I can’t give you a comprehensive list of all the risks associated with political life (because I don’t know what they are) but I will try and talk about it in general terms.

This is an area where it would be particularly helpful to speak with as many Deputies as possible, and perhaps also with other people working in the public sector, who will be able to tell you what they themselves have struggled with, or what keeps them up at night. This might help you to build up a more comprehensive picture than I can give you by myself.

Generally speaking, I think most risks fall into one of two categories. First, there are risks that arise simply because you are a public figure – the whole gamut of insults, slurs and misinformation about you on social media, threatening emails or phonecalls, attacks on your reputation, threats to your safety.

I haven’t yet felt unsafe myself, but some of us have, and with reason – especially people who are more publicly visible, because they’re Presidents, or associated with an unpopular policy.

And then there are risks that relate to the general and specific responsibilities you’ve taken on in the States. This includes things like data protection, challenges under the Code of Conduct, and any legal responsibilities you have as a result of your Committee duties.

You will be introduced to these responsibilities as part of your induction as a Deputy – but it will probably feel like a lot of information all at once, so don’t be afraid to go back and ask for a recap once you’re ready to take it in. In Committee, you will benefit from the knowledge, resources and support of the civil service; but the rest of the time, you are on your own – and that can be pretty frightening.

Of course it’s right that we are held to high standards – we have an almost unique power to make decisions that can affect people’s liberty, their livelihoods, sometimes even life itself. But we don’t have any of the infrastructure, from personal assistants to party advisers, which politicians elsewhere benefit from, so it can be very lonely and very vulnerable.

Your best support will probably be trusted colleagues – current Deputies, or those who have recently retired, who may have been through something similar, or who can help you to get the advice or assistance you need. If you have people you can confide in, don’t be afraid to ask them for help.

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What will it mean for my health?

Being a Deputy is probably not great news for your health – but I guess that’s true of most work, so put this in some perspective.

In my experience, it is difficult to make time to exercise or eat well, especially during busy periods – but if you’re coming into the role with good habits, you’ve probably got a better chance of maintaining them. If you follow the trend many Deputies have set this term, and get yourself a bike or an e-bike, you might even stand a chance of improving it!

If you have a major health event during your time in the States, it can be difficult to force yourself to take the time to recover properly, because it’s the kind of job that demands you should be “always on” – but you absolutely must put your recovery first. You’re in this for the long haul, and that means you need to make time to look after yourself when your body or mind demands it.

You do need to be aware that the impact on your mental and emotional health is likely to be substantial. If you have pre-existing mental health conditions, this kind of job could make things harder. Ask for help when you need it. Ask people you love and trust to keep an eye out for you, and to encourage you to take action when you need to.

And finally, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to (or doesn’t find it easy to) acknowledge how things affect you emotionally, make sure you’ve got some kind of positive way of coping with emotional stress. Because it does come with the territory, and you need a way of managing it that’s going to protect your health, not worsen it.

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What will it mean for my family?

If you have a spouse or partner, or children old enough to understand, this is a conversation well worth having (probably several times) in the run-up to the Election.

Here are some thoughts:

Your family life is not generally dragged into the public domain here – either by other politicians or by the media – but there are exceptions to that.

The worst exceptions, this term, have been the Education debates. I am struggling with what to tell you about those debates, and the atmosphere in and around them. I don’t have children, so I have been a bit of an onlooker, and can’t tell you the personal impact of those debates – I would strongly recommend talking to as many States Members with school-age families as you can, about their experience of Guernsey politics and what impact this has had on their children.

There have been some other debates where emotions have run high this term – especially the debates on assisted dying and, more recently, on abortion. These might not affect your children’s world in the same way – they are less likely to be topics of conversation at school – but if you’re getting angry letters or phone calls at home because of the debate, it might have an impact in a different way.

The same is true of one-to-one constituency work – you can get angry or obsessive constituents, and you want to be careful that they don’t have access to your personal life. If you want to keep work away from home entirely, you might want to think about having a separate work phone or even a PO Box for mail.

Political life is never without risks. In Guernsey, those risks tend to be milder than in most other places, but I would never pretend they don’t exist. You (and your family) can think through how you want to organise your working life and your home life so that you minimise those risks; you just need to give it some thought beforehand, and be prepared.

You might also want to think about the impact on your privacy:

As a States Member, you have to file an annual declaration of interests. You can see each Deputy’s declaration of interest on their profile page on gov.gg.

This means that some information about your financial affairs and property is in the public domain. It includes information about your immediate family’s interests, too. Of course, this is to make sure that you don’t abuse your public role to make decisions that will favour you (or your family) – but it can be a daunting step if you’re used to your privacy.

Apart from this, it’s up to you what you share about your family life. You might choose to be completely private, or you might occasionally talk about your own experiences in order to explain why you’re supporting a particular policy or course of action. If you’re going to talk about something your partner or children have been through, it’s wise to discuss it with them first, so that you only share what you know they are comfortable with.

And finally, you might want to think about how this will affect your time and attention:

The work of being a Deputy can completely eat up your days, and get its claws into your emotions. Your family can be your best safety net and support network, but there will also be some emotional impact for them. For example, they might see people badmouthing you on social media and be deeply hurt or outraged for you. Or they might watch you put weeks of effort into an important project, only for it to be rejected by the States or torn apart in the media, and feel upset for you and powerless to help.

None of this means you should throw out the idea of being a Deputy. I’m writing about this so that you can go into it with your eyes open, so that you can be prepared, and so that you can have open and honest conversations with your family from the start. That’s the best way to manage it. Politics is a kind of all-hours job, it can completely take over your home life and worry or preoccupy you even when you’re not actually working. That means it’s going to have an impact on anyone who lives with you, and it’s only right to acknowledge that and be ready for it.

P.S. Your loved ones are going to see you through some really rocky times, as well as some totally exciting ones. When the time comes, don’t forget to acknowledge and appreciate that, and to say thank you.

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What’s the time commitment like?

It’s substantial. If you watch the States from the outside, you will have seen Deputies show up for a meeting every three or four weeks, spend two or three days in (often long-winded and repetitive) debate, and go home. But that is really only the tip of the iceberg.

If you are on a Committee, you can expect to meet formally at least once a fortnight. Most meetings last about half a day, and your meeting pack could easily include up to 20 papers – somewhere between 100 (in a good week) to 300 pages of advance reading. In addition to that, you’ve got reading and preparation to do for each States Meeting. Many Deputies are on two Committees, so have double the workload.

There’s also a significant volume of emails to deal with every day, especially ahead of controversial debates. And constituency work – providing one-to-one assistance or advice to people who contact you for help – can consume as much or as little time as you’re willing to give it.

I kept a time log for most of 2019, so I can say with some confidence that I average a 45-hour working week. I have a bigger workload than a lot of States Members, because of the number of Committees I sit on, but I work pretty fast, so it balances out. I would guess 45 hours is fairly typical for a conscientious Deputy – I’m sure some work considerably more.

The job isn’t 9-to-5. You’ll have evening commitments (especially if you’re a President – that comes with some figurehead responsibilities, to show up at related charity events, awards ceremonies and the like) and the occasional very early morning radio interview. Meetings usually happen during office hours, which pushes reading, emails and admin to the corners of your day.

Very little of the work is repetitive, and a lot of it involves careful thought, so you have to concentrate – this makes it harder to work in long, solid blocks of time (if you can get one, between travelling to and fro for meetings). Your workload will peak ahead of Committee and States meetings, meaning evening or weekend work is fairly inevitable at those times.

On the other hand, there is a flexibility to this role that you don’t get with other jobs. There are definite quiet periods: a couple of weeks over Christmas and Easter, and in August, when the States is formally in recess (though Committees usually continue to meet). You can get stuff done then, or take advantage of the quiet to give yourself a holiday.

And you’ll learn that a week has its own rhythm – the day before a Committee meeting you’ll be flat out trying to finish your reading; the day after, you’ll probably be at a bit of a loose end. You might work ten hours the day before, and maybe only three or four the day after. Don’t be embarrassed by the quiet periods; you’ll more than pay for them in work during the peaks. But use them to take care of yourself, to catch up on household stuff or neglected emails, or just to get a breath of fresh air or a bit of exercise.

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What if I need a reasonable adjustment?

I’d love to be able to say that the States is completely accessible, but the truth is that’s still quite a work in progress.

But I am confident that the team supporting the States will do all they can to make sure that everybody who is elected is fully able to participate in States’ business.

If you come and watch the States in action, you’ll already see people with headsets to amplify the sound, or people who bring in a cushion, or who occasionally stand at the back or walk about, because of a bad back or leg. A small room next to the Royal Court has been equipped with a mini-fridge and a radio, so that parents can feed their infant children and still follow the debate.

However, the Royal Court itself is a pretty unforgiving room, and most of these adjustments are imperfect, especially for people with physical impairments. In the long term, the best solution will be to move the parliament to a purpose-built chamber, like almost every other parliament in the world – or even to somewhere like St James, as we did during the early stages of the pandemic.

For now, though, I’d encourage you to discuss any reasonable adjustments you might need – either during the campaign period or if you are elected – with the Election team upfront, so that you all come to a common understanding of what’s needed and what’s feasible. Some parts of political life can easily be made more accessible, while others are more of a challenge. But you should always feel able to ask for the reasonable adjustments you need to do your work.

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Can I cope with the stresses?

Most of us get to the end of four years and find it has taken some toll on our weight, our general health, and our happiness. It helps to come into this knowing it’s not an easy job (whatever people may think), having a good support network in place, and making time to take care of yourself – I am writing a section on self-care, which I hope will be useful, too.

One really tough aspect of the role, and one that’s fairly unique to being a politician, is the fact that you become “public property”, and that it’s generally publicly acceptable for people to be rude or dismissive of the States, or individual Deputies, without necessarily being in possession of the full facts (or indeed any of them!).

One way or another, I’ve seen that hurt a lot of my colleagues, and I’ve been hurt by it myself. If you have a deeply-felt sense of honour, you’re going to be dismayed by the general public assumption that you, because you are a politician, are acting without integrity. If you take pride in doing a good job, you’ll be rattled by the view that we’re all careless and stupid. If you know you’ve been working your socks off for the good of the Island, you’ll be hurt by the nasty comments on some online forums. You’ll be astonished by how one-sided even traditional media coverage feels.

Those challenges aren’t insurmountable. Each of us learns to cope with them in our own way. But they’re real, and there aren’t many other jobs or life experiences that can prepare you for them, so you deserve to know about them at this stage, and to think about how you will deal with them in turn.

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Can I afford it?

The basic rate of pay for Deputies was £36,009 a year at the start of this term. (Edited to add: I’m advised by the Treasury team that it will be £40,521 at the start of the new term. This is because the rate is normally increased by inflation from year to year – I’ve discussed this a bit further below.)

Some of the more ‘senior’ roles get higher salaries, but if you’re calculating whether or not you can afford it, you should probably work off the basic rate – there is no guarantee of being elected to any role, nor of staying in that role for the whole of the term. There are no bonuses (of course) and no benefits – there used to be a pension scheme for Deputies but that was closed down a couple of terms ago.

Your pay will normally be increased in line with inflation (RPIX) unless you choose to opt out at the start of the term. Remember, you have committed to this job for the next four years. It’s not like a normal job, where you can start job-hunting at any time if you are trying to find a higher wage or more flexible working hours, or whatever else you may need to support yourself and your family. The RPIX-linked increase is a way of making sure that the wage remains at a level which means that working age people, and people with families, are able to afford to do this work – so politics isn’t just for the rich and the retired.

We are classed as ‘self-employed’, which means we pay a higher rate of social insurance than you’ll be used to if you’re normally employed. The contribution rates are different depending on whether you’re under or over retirement age – but there’s a small uplift in your pay if you are under retirement age, which balances this out.

Your tax will be deducted at source, but your social insurance contributions won’t be. We pay on a quarterly basis, so you might want to plan for this and set aside a regular amount from your monthly wage, so that you don’t face a financial shock every third month when contributions are due.

Edited to add: If it helps you to get your head around the figures, let me explain how it works for me. I opted out of pay increases at the start of term, so I still take the 2016 rate, which is £36,009 a year. This means all my figures here are lower than yours will be, so please don’t worry if these numbers don’t match what you were expecting. I’m under retirement age, so I get an uplift in respect of social insurance contributions, meaning that my total pay is £37,629. That’s a monthly wage of £3,135. Tax (£434 per month) is deducted at source, leaving take-home pay of £2,701 a month. I pay £1,035 in social insurance contributions each quarter — I save £385 a month to make sure I’ve got enough to pay this. That leaves £2,316 a month to cover rent, bills, expenses and any private insurance or long-term savings you may have (I am not nearly as good at that kind of thing as I should be!).

One last edit: Deputies’ pay scales are published in the annual States’ Accounts (for example, see p70 of the 2019 Accounts). Of course, as a member of the public, you’d expect to know how much your elected representatives are paid — but when you’re on the receiving end of all that openness, it can feel a little daunting, so you just deserve to know in advance about it!

Obviously, everyone’s financial circumstances and commitments are different, and this is one of those areas where it might be especially hard to have the conversation with existing Deputies about how they make it work for them. I have (hopefully) set out the basic facts, so you can figure out how it might work for you. I’d be glad to try and answer any more detailed questions on an individual basis, if you’d like to get in touch.

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Am I old enough?

The law says you have to be at least 18 years old to stand for the States.

And that’s it.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 78. What matters is that you are prepared to commit the next four years (or more) to serving your Island. Check that you meet the technical requirements for being a Deputy – you have to have lived here for a certain time, and you have to be on the Electoral roll: it’s all on the Election website – and then go for it!

We have seen some fantastic youth leadership in this term alone: last year’s #YouthAction4Climate protests demanded much greater action and accountability from the States on climate change. That led to a commitment from the States to develop a Climate Change Action Plan, which will be debated before the end of this term – although it will need committed people to see it through during the next term.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Youth Forum from time to time – a group of thoughtful, highly capable teenagers from across the Bailiwick’s schools and youth groups, who have engaged fully with important local and international issues, and who have helped to shape the agenda on everything from food waste to mental health and wellbeing. And most recently, I’ve been delighted by the emergence of Guerns Against Discrimination – a youth-led movement who helped to champion the adoption of Guernsey’s long-overdue non-discrimination laws.

You’re never too young to make a difference. And I think you could be great.

I think that bringing the right attitude, a respect for others, and a willingness to learn is far more important than having a certain amount of ‘life experience’. And I think it’s important to challenge the assumption that age and life experience are neatly linked. You will meet older people who have led relatively sheltered lives, and you’ll meet younger people who’ve lived through really difficult things and had to grow up fast. You can be mature (or immature) at any age.

I found my early twenties really hard. I had grown up deeply religious, and had gradually realised I didn’t believe any of it any more – so I was trying to come to grips with myself and my values more or less from scratch, without the religious framework which had shaped my life til then. Add in the question of sexuality, and the whole thing was an emotional and psychological rollercoaster! I would not have been a good young Deputy; I needed a few more years. But that just happened to be the time in my life when a lot of big things happened. Some people are far more certain in themselves at 20 – far more ready for this kind of work than I would have been. And some people find themselves facing crises or tragedies at 50 which utterly uproot and change them. There’s no right time to do this, no one-size-fits-all solution. You need to do what’s right for you.

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How much can I achieve?

Sometimes, you’ll be surprised how much of a positive impact you can have. A lot of the good stuff politicians do never really gets onto the public’s radar, because it doesn’t happen within the States. A lot of good, solid work happens at Committee level, or helping constituents one-to-one.

States debates – which are often frustrating, gruelling, repetitive – give a very skewed (and offputting!) picture of the breadth and the potential of political life.

Just to give one example, among many, of the wonderful opportunities you might have in the States:

This term, the Committee for Health & Social Care (led by Heidi Soulsby) and the Committee for Employment & Social Security (led by Michelle Le Clerc) worked together to introduce free cervical screening for all women aged 25 to 65, in Guernsey and Alderney.

That issue never came to the States, because it didn’t need that level of approval – so it wasn’t really on the public radar, and you might never have heard about it, unless you use the service yourself.

But without hard-working politicians on the two Committees, it would never have happened. It involved quiet hard work behind the scenes, but it could have a major impact – substantially improving women’s future health outcomes, and maybe even helping us to stamp out cervical cancer altogether. You could be part of those life-changing decisions, too.

But there are two sides to this. Sometimes progress is unbelievably hard to come by. Sometimes you feel you are in the States, not so much to make good things happen, but simply as a buffer against things getting worse.

If you are swimming against a political tide, you might feel you’ve done little but kick against the waves and exhaust yourself for much of your term. Sometimes, when things feel especially futile, you need to regain your courage by asking yourself: How much worse could it have been? Perhaps all I did was to hold back the worst, but what if there had been no one like me to do that?

It’s important to go into this role with the right expectations. You’re going to be one person out of 40 (38 Guernsey Deputies and 2 Alderney Reps). You need to be prepared to do the slow, patient work of building consensus – or at least majority support – for the issues that matter to you, so that you can get them through the States.

If you want to be an executive leader who snaps your fingers and gets it done, you will be frustrated from the word Go! – even if you are in a very senior role within the States. The team workers and organisers in politics are much less visible than the charismatic political leaders, but they’re generally the ones who can make change happen, just by keeping on plugging at it. Keep that in mind, and keep going.

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Couldn’t I be more effective on the outside?

Unfortunately, the narrow answer to this is yes – if there’s one particular issue you care about, then as a campaigner you can pour all your efforts into persuading the States to take action on, say, climate change, or housing, or transport links, or poverty …

As a person campaigning (or coaching, or protesting, or lobbying) from the outside, you can use your skills and expertise to advise on the issues you know well. And you don’t have to burn up a lot of time and energy on issues that are of no interest to you at all – unlike States Members, who are always dealing with the whole of government.

But! – and it’s a big one – your efforts to persuade the States, and the actions that the States then takes, are only ever going to be as good as the people who are in it.

If the States is made up of people who are unsympathetic to your cause; unable or unwilling to accept the evidence that shows how important it is; or unconvinced that the action you want to see is needed – then no amount of campaigning is ever going to achieve what you want it to.

I completely understand why staying on the outside is the most appealing option. But if everyone does that, the States – the actual place where decisions are made, and resources are put to use – won’t have enough people in it who care about the same things you do, who are willing and able to make the changes you want to see.

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