Tens of thousands of people across England are being denied a vote in next week's local elections, owing to the undemocratic phenomenon of uncontested seats.
In this year’s elections there are seven wards which are ‘uncontested’, ie which are only being contested by one political party. These uncontested wards are:
Otmoor, Cherwell District Council (Conservative, Oxfordshire)
Walton South, Elmbridge Borough Council (Conservative, Surrey)
Appleton, Halton Borough Council (Labour, Cheshire)
Broadheath, Halton Borough Council (Labour, Cheshire)
Hale, Halton Borough Council (Labour, Cheshire)
Halewood West, Knowsley Borough Council (Labour, Merseyside)
Page Moss, Knowsley Borough Council (Labour, Merseyside)
In these wards, the election results have already been decided without the election even being run, as voters do not have any choice about who is going to represent them. At least 38,000 people are therefore effectively being denied a vote.
The first principle of democracy is that you get to choose who represents you. Uncontested seats make a mockery of democracy. If a seat is uncontested, democracy in that area effectively does not exist. The councillors ‘elected’ in these five wards will have no proper mandate from the people as they will not have had to win a single vote.
In other years, the phenomenon of uncontested seats can be very much worse. Between 2011 and 2014 there have been 382 uncontested seats. That’s over 2.5 million people denied a vote in their local elections.
The electoral system used for local elections in England and Wales (First Past the Post) means there’s little incentive for parties to field candidates where they are unlikely to win. In some cases where FPTP makes the seat a foregone conclusion, no other parties bother contesting it.
Uncontested seats are also a reflection of the dwindling memberships of political parties. In the 1950s, one in ten of us were party members. Now it’s more like one in 100. This is going hand in hand with a general increase in disengagement from politics. These trends make it harder for parties to field candidates in every ward for local elections, as they have fewer people coming forward for public office.
If a seat is uncontested, voters are denied a choice about who gets to represent them. Uncontested seats make a mockery of democracy. They also mean that the councillors ‘elected’ in these seats have no proper mandate. And they make it more likely that a council is dominated by one party, leaving it susceptible to poor scrutiny and therefore poor performance.
It’s time to introduce a fairer voting system for local elections – one which gives voters the chance to be represented by candidates for whom they have actually voted. Local electoral reform would mean there would be incentives for parties to field candidates wherever they have a vote, no matter how small. And it would improve the quality of local democracy, making councils better scrutinised, more transparent and therefore more effective.
In the 2003 Scottish local elections there were 61 uncontested seats. But after a fairer voting system was introduced in 2007 (i.e. the Single Transferable Vote), these uncontested seats were eliminated. Since then, in both the 2007 and 2012 Scottish local elections, there has not been a single uncontested seat.
This is because a fairer local electoral system creates incentives for parties to field candidates wherever they have even a fraction of the vote. This in turn gives voters the chance to be represented by candidates for whom they have actually voted, which for most people is a huge improvement on the status quo.
For those unfortunate enough to live in uncontested wards, of course, they don’t have any say at all. If a fairer local electoral system were introduced in England and Wales, then we will see an end to this blight on our democracy. Let's consign uncontested seats to the dustbin of history.
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