8 things last week’s elections tell us about Britain’s changing politics

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 10th May 2016

Last week’s ‘Super Thursday’ of elections was gold-dust for democracy lovers. It saw elections in Wales and London for their Assemblies, in Scotland for the Holyrood Parliament, in councils across England, in England and Wales for the Police and Crime Commissioners, and for Mayors in London, Bristol, Salford and Liverpool.

Here are seven things we can learn from Super Thursday:

1. Politics is fragmented – there is no longer a UK-wide ‘picture’. The SNP won a majority in Scotland, with Tories in second place, Labour in third (unthinkable a few years ago) and the Greens in fourth place. In contrast, the left-wing nationalist party Plaid Cymru are the official opposition in Wales, while UKIP entered the Assembly for the first time. No one accurately predicted the local election result in England, with both Labour and the Conservatives losing seats. We don’t have two-party politics in the UK any more. We have seven-or-more party politics – something which First Past the Post is completely unsuited to, but which thankfully the devolved nations’ electoral systems can cope with.

2. First Past the Post is now almost completely isolated. Last week, everyone in the UK outside of Greater Manchester could vote in a preferential or proportional ballot – Supplementary Vote for the Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, Additional Member System for the Scottish, London and Welsh votes. It means that people are getting used to voting in non-FPTP ballots. And, crucially, it means local elections in England and Wales are now on their own outside of Westminster in being conducted via the outdated, winner-takes-all First Past the Post system.

3. Yet First Past the Post is still distorting results in councils across the country. In Castle Point, the Tories got just 37% of the vote yet won a full 62% of the seats. And UKIP didn’t get any seats for their 31% of the vote. In Oldham, Labour’s 49% of the vote turned into a whopping 75% of the seats. And in Portsmouth, the Lib Dems got 2% more votes than the Tories but twice as many seats.

4. The lessons have not been learnt from the last PCC elections. Although it’s positive that this PCC vote was held in May instead of the November 2012 vote – which was held on its own, in the rain – the public just didn’t have the information about the candidates, partly due to the government’s refusal to provide a freepost leaflet from the candidates. Our BMG poll last week showed that just 10% of people said they could name their PCC – and of those, 10% actually got it wrong. The BBC also report that there were high numbers of spoilt ballots, a reflection of low information.

5. Women’s representation is stalling in Scotland and Wales – stagnant at 34% in Scotland and 42% in Wales, essentially the same as last time. Parties need to take action now to ensure we don’t see progress slipping back in 2021.

6. Turnout was better than expected. In Wales, Scotland, and London it was the second highest ever, after those institutions’ first elections at the end of the 90s – all around 45%. But the fact that 55% of people abstaining on Thursday is to be celebrated as a good turnout story is a little bit saddening. We could do so much more to increase engagement in elections – including decent citizenship education, better funding of public information, votes at 16 (outside of Scotland!) and registration drives in educational institutions and workplaces.

7. The Additional Member System produced mixed results. While the Additional Member System produced a fairly proportional result in Scotland – the SNP got roughly half of seats for roughly half the vote – in Wales the less-proportional nature of AMS there meant that Labour’s support fell by 7.6% on the constituency vote and 5.4% on the list vote, yet their number of seats fell by just 1 – from 30 to 29. The Welsh Assembly to increase in size, with a switch to the Single Transferable Vote used in Northern Ireland, or failing that, to increase the number and overall ratio of proportional list seats under AMS.

8. Minority government is becoming normal. Scotland and Wales both elected minority governments – i.e. ones that don’t have an overall majority of seats, leading them to rely on other parties to get votes through. It’s normal, it can be stable, and what’s more it can lead to better, more cooperative politics (see our report last year, ‘Working Together’).

The lesson from last Thursday has to be that in the 21st century, with voters ‘shopping around’ more than ever before, we need the frameworks and democratic systems to reflect the new and diverse politics we see in the UK today. Let’s hope policy-makers take note.

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