90% of seats on less than half the vote? That’s England’s local democracy

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 9th May 2023

With nearly all the 2023 local election results declared, the First Past the Post system used across England has once again failed to reflect the views of voters in who runs their local community.

Rather than simply representing the strength of different parties in their area, as councils in Scotland and Northern Ireland do, England’s councils are often wildly different from their local communities and the votes of those who live there. Some parties secured 90% of the seats up for election to the council despite receiving less than half the vote.

Analysis by our research team has identified a series of results where voter choices have been ‘distorted’ by England’s winner-takes-all First Past the Post system.

In Broxbourne, the Conservatives gained 90% of the seats with just 50% of the votes cast leaving no representation for the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Independents despite them receiving a combined 20% of the vote

In Bath & North East Somerset, the Liberal Democrats gained 71.9% of the seats on just 42.3% of the vote.

In Tameside Labour took 90% of the seats despite securing just 48% of the vote while the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents were left with no seats despite securing almost a quarter of the vote (23%) between them.

In Braintree, the Conservatives gain over half the seats (53%) despite securing just 37% of the votes cast.

In Cotswold, while the Liberal Democrats’ 47% vote share secured them almost two-thirds (65%) of the seats, the Conservative’s 43% of vote left them with just over a quarter (27%).

In Bassetlaw Labour gained 79% of the seats with just 48% of the vote.

Nobody can look at these examples and think our system is working. It’s failing voters and it’s failing communities. From Braintree to Bassetlaw, election after election we see thousands of voters ignored by First Past the Post.

(For councils with wards that elect more than one councillor, we have calculated vote shares by using the number of votes for each party’s best-placed candidate in each ward. This is the approach taken by local election experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of the Elections Centre, a major resource for local election data in the UK)

Votes wasted, voters ignored

Under First Past the Post, all votes not cast for the one (or multiple) winners in each ward go to waste. Spread across a whole council area, parties can often secure a substantial number of votes and still be left with zero representation.

No party should be able to sweep the board on a minority of the vote. But again and again, we see parties handed numbers of seats entirely out of proportion with their number of votes, leaving many voters feeling their voice has been ignored.

We are calling for a shift to proportional representation for English councils and to end the use of First Past the Post in local government.

A tried and tested alternative

There’s a clear alternative, and it works. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland use a fairer voting system, the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which avoids random results like these. STV is a form of proportional representation, that can breathe new life and energy into our local democracy.

Since STV was introduced in Scotland in 2007, one-party fiefdoms have become a thing of the past. In 2020, Wales passed legislation allowing councils to introduce the fair and proportional Single Transferable Vote system.

With STV, voters would live in wards with one or more councillors, just like now. Except, rather than the norm being that one party can dominate all the councillors, you get a group of councillors that reflect the diversity of local opinion.

It’s to scrap first past the post and finally fairly represent us all in local government.

Add your name to our call for fair local elections in England

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