By Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Fellow of Brasenose College, University of Oxford.
Localism has become today’s catchword. Politicians compete with each other to proclaim their belief in the dispersal of power and the need to strengthen local government.
However, not much has been done to secure this aim, and local democracy remains in a distinctly unhealthy state.
Turnout in local elections is generally between 30% and 40% – the lowest by far in Western Europe; and, of those who do vote, many support the same party locally as they do in national elections, treating local elections, not as a means of passing a verdict on their local council, but as a plebiscite on the government’s record.
That indeed is how the results are presented in the media, where national, not local, politicians are asked to comment on the outcome. Local elections have become miniature General Elections and because of this many voters regard local councillors as party emissaries, meaning independent-minded people are deterred from seeking election. Local councillors are seen as representing not ‘us’ but ‘them’.
It is because local government seems so little valued that national governments of both political parties have been able to take its powers away with so little protest.
As a consequence, Britain has become a profoundly centralised society.
While centralisation is a product of many complex cultural as well as institutional factors, there is little doubt that the First Past the Post system undermines local democracy. Under First Past the Post, many local government wards and many local councils are permanently safe for one party.
Such unbalanced majorities are distinctly undemocratic. There has only been one Parliament in the 20th century (1931) in which the opposition was almost totally obliterated: the government holding 554 of the 615 seats on just two-thirds of the vote (a two-to-one plurality in votes leading to a nine-to-one majority in seats). However, in local government, such results are commonplace. To be effective, local authorities, like governments, need a lively opposition to keep them on their toes and scrutinise what they are doing. A permanent one-party local authority is almost as offensive as a permanent one-party state.
These occurrences are not random. They tend to benefit the Conservatives in rural areas and Labour in the cities, so exaggerating, rather than mitigating, social and geographical divisions. They make Britain appear a more divided country than in fact it is, because the electoral system deprives the Labour minority in the countryside and the Conservative minority in the cities, of an effective political voice.
In many local authorities, there may seem little point in voting, since the outcome, under First Past the Post, is a pre-ordained landslide. That is one main reason why so many local government wards are uncontested. Where a ward is safe, opposition parties can feel it’s a waste of time to put up a candidate. The consequence of this is that if you’re a Labour supporter in a Conservative safe seat or a Conservative in a Labour safe seat, you come to be totally disenfranchised.
In national elections, the ‘wrong’ side won in three of the 26 general elections in the 20th century – those of 1929, 1951 and February 1974. In the 2011 English local elections, the wrong side won in 15 local authorities, so that, in these authorities, voters were not given the outcome for which they asked.
The First Past the Post system is currently used for local government elections only in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the Single Transferable Vote has been used since 1973, while, in Scotland, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) was adopted for local government elections in 2007.
The outcome of these local elections under STV show a striking contrast to results in England, and to results in the 2003 elections in Scotland conducted by First Past the Post before the move to STV.
In 2003, Labour had won 71 of the 79 seats in Glasgow on just 48% of the vote, and had won Edinburgh despite winning less than 28% of the vote. In Renfrewshire; the SNP had won control of the council despite being outpolled by Labour. No such anomalies occurred in the 2007 Scottish elections under STV and there were no uncontested seats, while in 2003 when there had been 61. There was also a 9.5% increase in valid votes cast, and councils hitherto thought to be no-go areas for particular parties were opened up. The Scottish local elections, therefore, yielded much more genuinely representative local government than local elections in England.
Under the Single Transferable Vote, the voter, instead of casting her vote with an X, ranks candidates in order of preference; 1, 2, 3 etc. The system thus combines a primary and an election with no need for a separate primary in which fewer are likely to participate than in a General Election and with participation in primaries sometimes being restricted to party members.
Multimember wards enable voters to distribute preferences across parties if they so wish, and to discriminate amongst members of their favoured party. A voter can therefore choose between various candidates from her favoured party, or across parties, on the basis of who has been, or might prove to be, the more effective councillor. In single-member wards, by contrast, there is no way in which the elector can distinguish between effective and less effective councillors. Effective councillors are doomed to defeat along with the less effective solely because the party to which they belong is unpopular at national level.
It is perhaps not for the government to decide upon the best system for each local authority, but for local voters themselves. Under the Localism Bill 5% of registered electors in every local authority area have the right to secure a referendum on any matter within the legal powers of their authority. It would be natural to extend this principle by allowing for 5% of registered electors to secure a referendum on the electoral system for their authority.
As the parties begin to kick of their campaigns for the local elections this May it will be interesting to see whether the same old story of safe and uncontested seats starts to shows itself. What is clear is that electoral reform is an essential precondition for localism and for making local government a more effective part of the constitution.
For more about last year’s local elections see English Local Elections 2011, Report and Analysis, by Andy White and Magnus Smidak.