Next week voters across 21 of Wales’ 22 unitary authorities will head to the polls to decide the political make-up of their local councils. Voters will express a view on where they want to see their council head for the next five years. The direction of travel on a range of critical issues like council tax, social services, schools, transport and economic development will all be set.
But for nearly 140,000 the opportunity to express a view has been stolen from them by an unfair and outdated electoral system. For them, next Thursday won’t be Election Day.
Across Wales, 96 individuals have already been elected unopposed. The simple task of submitting nomination forms was all it took. No need especially to phone canvass, knock a single door, or attend a hustings. In one ward, no one submitted nomination forms. Residents there will go unrepresented until a by-election is organised.
Electoral Reform Society Wales research shows that across the country, 12 of the 21 councils up for election contain uncontested seats. The worst, Powys is home to an estimated 32,132 residents denied a vote. Gwynedd has approximately 22,861 residents robbed a voice; and in Pembrokeshire its 20,038.
This is not just a problem for rural Wales. Voting won’t interrupt the daily routine of 7,085 residents in Bridgend county borough next Thursday. Nor the 7,524 taxpayers who live in local government minister Carl Sargeant’s own constituency.
Is this a sign of a declining interest in politics? A sign that fewer and fewer people are interested in standing? Or is it an illustration of how our ‘winner takes it all’ First Past The Post system is crowding out competition, particularly in single-member wards?
All of the 96 democracy deserts are single member wards. Yet seats which elect more than one member (‘multi-member’ wards) are even more unfair under the current system as a party can gain all the seats – as many as 5 – despite not winning a majority of the vote. Most ‘multi-member’ wards are held by one party, because the system doesn’t allow for a politics that accurately reflects the diverse needs and interests of the community.
Across Wales at the last local government election in 2008 two thirds of voters might as well have thrown their ballot paper in the bin as only 34% of votes cast actually got a councillor elected.
- In the Morriston ward in Swansea, Labour won ALL of the 5 seats, despite gaining 39.6% of the vote.
- In the Plasnewydd ward in Cardiff, the Lib Dems won ALL of the 4 seats, despite gaining only 44% of the vote.
Under the current system those who finish 3rd can still go on to win. In the starkest example from last election the Lib Dems came third in Cardiff according to the number of votes they won, but gained twice as many seats as the Conservatives, who won the most votes.
The ‘winner takes all’ feature of FPTP is an unfairness which is repeated in county after county across the country.
The case for reform
Scotland had similar problems, but in 2007 moved to a fairer system of electing local councillors. There are now no single member wards in Scotland. Local voters there get to express a preference at the ballot box, ranking in order their preferred candidates. In comparison, the Scottish local elections under STV meant that 74% of voters got their first choice of councillor elected. The unfair situation where the ‘winner takes all’ is avoided as seats are distributed more proportionately.
It’s a system that the 2004 Sunderland Commission, established by the then Labour and Liberal Democrat partnership government, recommended. It’s a system that would have provided a vote to the 140,000 Welsh taxpayers who live in one of the 96 democracy deserts. It’s a system that the Welsh Government must now get on and implement. Wales cannot afford to waste a further 8 years waiting for fair votes.