A tale of two local by-elections: how STV produces fairer outcomes

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 4th October 2019

On Thursday 3rd October, as on most Thursdays, several local authority by-elections took place throughout Britain. These by-elections occur when a vacancy arises due to a local councillor resigning or passing away.

Two of Thursday’s by-elections highlight how the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) electoral system, used for Scottish and Northern Irish local elections, produces much fairer outcomes than First Past The Post (FPTP), which is used for Welsh and English local elections.

One of Thursday’s by-elections was in Wales, for the Whitchurch & Tongwynlais division of Cardiff Council. This election was held using FPTP. Another by-election was in Scotland, for the Bridge of Don ward of Aberdeen Council. When a Scottish local by-election occurs with one vacancy to be filled, the election is held using the Alternative Vote (AV) system, however, on this occasion there were two vacancies to be filled, meaning the election could take place using STV.

The Whitchurch & Tongwynlais by-election, held under FPTP, saw the Conservative candidate elected with a little over a third (36%) of votes cast. This means that nearly two-thirds of voters (Labour: 28%; Plaid Cymru: 16%; Lib Dem: 14%; Green: 6%) saw their choice ignored, without any opportunity to influence the final outcome via votes for their second or subsequent preference candidates. If there had been a second vacancy, as there was in the Bridge of Don by-election, FPTP means it is likely that a second Conservative candidate would have been elected, due to the 8-percentage point gap between the first and second-placed parties.

The Bridge of Don by-election also saw the Conservatives top the poll with 36% of first-preference votes. The Conservative candidate was duly elected, having reached the required vote quota. However, as the election was held under STV, the Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate, who received only slightly fewer first-preference votes (35%) was also elected after surpassing the required vote quota. This means that 71% of voters saw a candidate elected who they had given their first-preference vote to, nearly double the number of voters who saw their preferred candidate elected in Whitchurch & Tongwynlais.

The results in these two electoral areas at the previous all-out Welsh and Scottish local elections, held in 2017, are even more striking. Both Whitchurch & Tongwynlais and Bridge of Don are each represented by four local councillors. At the 2017 Welsh local elections, held under FPTP, all four councillors elected to represent Whitchurch & Tongwynlais were Conservatives, despite the Conservatives winning only 43% of votes in the area.

The results in Bridge of Don, at the 2017 Scottish local elections, held under STV, much more accurately reflected how people in the area had voted. Two SNP councillors were elected, as well as one Conservative and one Independent councillor. The SNP received 34% of first-preference votes, the Conservatives 26% and the Independent candidate 14%. Nearly three-quarters of voters (74%) saw a candidate elected who they had given their first-preference vote to. In addition, all voters (even those who did not see their first choice elected) had the opportunity to influence the final outcome via their second and subsequent vote choices.

Our recently published report ‘Democracy Denied: The 2019 election audit’, provides more evidence of why Wales and England should follow Scotland and Northern Ireland in introducing STV for local elections.

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