A better voting system for the London Assembly

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 10th October 2016

This week is European Local Democracy Week 2016, and to mark it, we’re running a series of articles on how to make the London Assembly more democratic.

For the first article in the ‘Building a Better London Democracy’ series, ERS Policy and Public Affairs Officer Charley Jarrett argues that switching to the Single Transferable Vote for Assembly elections would be better for voters and politics generally.

In 2000, the Greater London Authority (GLA) was established. From the technocratic Metropolitan Board of Works to the elected London County Council; from the Greater London Council (GLC) that gave the city its current boundaries, to a 14-year period of beefed up boroughs and no citywide governance – Westminster and Whitehall have always been reluctant to give Londoners too much say over their own affairs[1], and the powers of pan-London government has waxed and waned.

The GLA saw the introduction of a somewhat limited (by international standards) Mayor of London, with strategic oversight over policing, transport, fire services and economic development, held accountable by an Assembly with remarkably few powers.  As the Mayoralty has been given more powers, however, the need for the Assembly’s power to scrutinise has increased too.

Yet there is a worrying lack of interest or knowledge in the work of the London Assembly[2].  This may be in no small part due to a lack of competition in its elections – caused by its electoral system.

The London Assembly has always been elected by the Additional Member System(AMS).  AMS is a huge improvement on First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) – and on the FPTP-style bloc-voting previously used for London Borough and former GLC elections.  Nevertheless, AMS has a number of shortcomings which could be resolved through adopting the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

By better encouraging Assembly Members (AMs) and candidates to compete for votes by publicising their scrutiny records, STV could help increase voters’ knowledge of the Assembly and its work.  This improved accountability would be better both for voters and for London governance.

Constituency seats

One issue many electoral reformers have with FPTP is its tendency to produce safe seats.  Once you become an MP for the dominant party in a safe seat, it is very unlikely you will lose your seat unless your party selectorate deselects you.  So it is with the 14 constituency AMs. Ten of these 14 seats have never changed party control. So if you are a voter in one of these ten seats (whether you tend to vote for the winning party or not) your vote means little.

As with all FPTP elections, any votes in the constituency element of AMS for losing candidates or giving winning candidates a majority of more than one is wasted. In 2016, a total of 1,860,392 of these votes (77%) were wasted.  Moreover, only five constituency AMs were elected with a majority of votes cast.

In some respects, then, AMS in London results in the same winner-takes-all politicians elected with minority support, safe seats and wasted votes as FPTP.

Party lists

FPTP advocates often criticise electoral reform because they do not like party lists. The Society, while preferring list systems to FPTP, does not advocate party lists as they lead to ‘partyocracy’.

Presently, party selectorates and members reward and punish Assembly list candidates by choosing the order in which they will be elected. Voters should be able to reward and punish individual incumbents, and candidates in general, without rewarding or punishing their running mates.

Under AMS, if you dislike the first-listed candidate from your favourite party, you have no way of supporting your party without also supporting that candidate. Similarly, if you like a candidate from a party you dislike, you have no way of backing the candidate without also backing that party. Even within a party, you have no means of saying at the ballot box you’d rather see – say – the fourth-listed rather than second-listed candidate elected. STV would resolve this. It encourages competition not just between parties, but between candidates and ideas: it maximises voter choice.

Because list AMs are answerable more to their parties than to voters, people are less able to identify them and the work they do.  This, in turn, makes it even more difficult for them to get the praise they deserve when they’re doing well and to hold them to account when they’re not.

A further issue with AMS is the inherent asymmetry between constituency and list AMs, with reports from Scotland (where the same system is used) of tensions between the two types of member. STV would do away with the inelegance of two tiers of politicians in the same body with different roles and incentives.

Yet another peculiarity of the list element of AMS elections is that AMs who defect keep their seat, despite having been elected on a party list. This was demonstrated in 2005. Two UKIP AMs, elected just seven months earlier, defected to Veritas. Within less than a year they switched again, forming the now-defunct One London party.

If you support empowering people over parties, maximising voter choice and voice, and encouraging electoral competition and accountability, STV is the choice for you.

Real awareness of the Assembly’s work could be raised if individual AMs and candidates were better incentivised to tell voters what they have been doing or would do on the Assembly. STV provides those incentives.

[1] Derek Keene, “Metropolitan comparisons: London as a city-state,” Historical Research 77, no. 198 (2004), p.478.

[2] Vernon Bogdanor, The New British Constitution (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009).

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