A bumper year for local elections – but a dud system is holding England back

Tara Azar, former Student Placement

Posted on the 12th February 2021

Last week, the government announced that the elections on May 6th will go ahead – a welcome bit of clarity. Although this is good news for democracy, voters will still be short-changed under England’s one-party-takes-all voting system.

As well as electing Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner posts, the May local elections in England will see elections to 149 councils – 24 county councils; 35 metropolitan districts; 28 unitary authorities; and 62 district councils.

That’s a whopping 4,712 council seats up for grabs, plus at least 175 by-elections that have built up during the period that by-elections have been suspended due to Covid.

A bumper year – but a dud system

However, unlike local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland (and soon Wales), these elections will take place through a type of First Past The Post electoral system. Rather than trying to represent the diversity of opinion in each ward – only the biggest group party gets represented, even if they aren’t in the majority. When that’s scaled up to a full council, parties can get thousands of votes and zero representation. The result is councils across the country that are often dominated by one party group, with far more seats than local support.

When voters’ signals are warped by the system it makes it hard for them to hold local politicians to account. The need for genuinely accountable local councils is especially important during the current Covid-19 pandemic, as huge decisions are taken over social care, local-run schools, public health and planning. Yet with First Past the Post, party groups can lose support but gain seats, and visa versa.

In Basildon Borough Council in 2019 Labour won less than a quarter of the vote (almost half the Conservatives’ vote tally) yet they elected more councillors.

Sometimes there isn’t even an election. In the 2019 local elections, 150 councillors were ‘elected’ without there even being a contest, across 47 local authorities, representing nearly one-in-five councils where elections took place. Over 250,000 potential voters were denied any say in the selection of their local councillor(s) in 2019. In Fenland, Rutland and Melton, around 40% of councillors had no contest at all. It simply isn’t worth campaigning if the same councillor gets in on, say, 40% of the vote each time.

This lack of scrutiny has real financial costs. Councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6bn a year through a lack of scrutiny of their procurement processes. After all, when there’s only one party represented, who’s going to check their work? Councillors shouldn’t be marking their mates’ homework.

The ERS’ report on the 2015 local elections showed that in nearly half of all English local councils, a single party was able to secure more than half of the councillors up for election, while winning fewer than half of votes cast across the local authority area.

The alternative English voters deserve

The Welsh Parliament has recently passed legislation to allow councils to introduce a proportional voting system. This legislation is the first in Wales to introduce the Single Transferable Vote (STV) into Welsh elections, a form of proportional representation backed by the ERS and used in Scotland and Northern Ireland for locals.

For the first time, councils will have the chance to move to a system that gives voters more choice, ensures their vote counts and delivers greater representation.

Scotland has enjoyed this fairer voting system since 2007, which has seen the number of candidates running more than doubling – giving voters more choice, uncontested seats have become a thing of the past, and there is no need for constituents to rely on tactical voting (If your first choice doesn’t have enough support to be elected, your vote can move to your second choice). Opposition parties are strong enough to properly scrutinise the parties in office.

We hear time and time again that people in England feel their vote doesn’t count and they’ve never felt represented locally. They would be right. First Past the Post undermines local government and is deeply corrosive to trust and political engagement. One-party-takes-all politics just doesn’t work when people want real choice and a clear voice in their communities.

The ERS will be monitoring the local elections and shining a light where democracy has been denied and on the inevitable warped results.

Tara Azar is a placement student with the Electoral Reform Society from the University of Nottingham.


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