Conservative councillor: How the Single Transferable Vote broke open Scotland’s one-party fiefdoms

Author:
Josiah Mortimer, Head of Communications

Posted on the 5th August 2021

As part of the launch of the Electoral Reform Society’s new report – Here to Stay: Two Decades of Proportional Representation in Britain – I recently spoke to politicians across Britain about their experiences of being elected with PR.

Scotland’s councils switched to the Single Transferable Vote – the gold standard of proportional representation in the ERS’ eyes – in 2007, and hasn’t looked back since.

In this interview, I spoke to Conservative councillor Dave Dempsey – leader of the opposition on Fife Council, which is run by an SNP-Labour coalition. Cllr Dempsey is a keen supporter of proportional representation, in contrast to the wider party’s support for Westminster’s voting system.

Questions and answers have been trimmed for brevity.

Josiah Mortimer: Why do you back STV for local councils in Scotland?

Cllr Dempsey: It removes the need for voters to vote for something they don’t want, to stop them getting something they want even less.

There aren’t all that many who go back to or before the 2007 switchover [to STV]. It took a bit of adjusting to, but I don’t remember any real revolt.

Is anyone calling for a return to FPTP?

Not at our level, not at council level.

You – and even Labour figures – have mentioned before that Fife was a one-party Labour fiefdom. Do you think that fiefdom structure and mentality stemmed at least partly from the fact that there was a winner takes all voting system?

Yes.

Do people think it’s still a problem now?

No, nobody. I don’t think anybody quite thinks like that anymore.  The seats are spread out proportionally as you would expect!

It works out at there’s an SNP councillor in every ward. There’s a Labour councillor in most of the wards. We [Conservatives] are fairly spread through. I don’t think anybody thinks of any bit as theirs.

You must speak to your SNP colleagues and obviously your Conservative colleagues quite regularly within your multi-member ward. Do you work together on issues?

Yes. We have a [all-ward councillor] work meeting roughly every six weeks. And I describe them as most useful meetings we attend.

We also have, again, roughly every six or eight weeks, a formal committee meeting at what’s called area level, which is roughly three wards.

I would challenge someone attending, not if someone just walked in off the street and sat down to guess who was in which party, because even at that level, and that’s 10 councillors for us it is still pretty consensual and good natured.

How would you describe the relationship with other councillors? How do voters respond?

One description is competitive cooperation, and the other is cooperative competition. You can take your pick. We are trying to steal a march on other parties while at the same time cooperating for the public.

We’ve got two SNP and two Conservatives in my ward, but we still there’s a lot of interaction. I get the impression that other wards find their modus operandi and they come to some way of doing it, which suits the three or four of them and they get on with it.

Would you say that voters take note of this – do you think they value that sense of cooperation and, and having a choice of councillors to go to at one time, from different parties?

We have things called community councils up here, which I think are probably closest to parish councils, but they don’t have much of a budget to deploy. So, they’re that conduit for information. And the four of us turn up pretty religiously. I think [voters] appreciate the fact that they can, to some extent, play us off against each other.

I say to voters: if you’ve got an issue and you’re not getting joy of the system, email all your ward councillors. So, all of them know that all the others have got it. And see who jumps first.

That is quite an effective way of doing it, because you can use the fact that you have this degree of competition.

We have tended to specialise. There’s a councillor in the ward who’s considerably longer in service than me – she goes back to the old previous era. And she specializes in council housing and social work. That’s what drives her. I’m an ex-engineer. I’m known as the man for potholes and trees. So, we have developed specialisms and we do on occasions refer to other members.

That seems to be part of a trend across Scotland.

If you take the north of Scotland, you have this wonderful thing: councils controlled by independents. It clearly works for them.

Would a switch to PR help at Westminster for Scotland?

If you take the SNP MPs, it’s down from the 56 [seats] or what it was at its peak for Westminster, but the central belt in particular is just [SNP] yellow from one end to the other. The results are a very, very poor reflection of what the voters’ opinion is.

The UK government plans to roll back preferential voting for mayors in England [abolishing voters’ second preference]. What do you make of it?

Oh dear. I don’t approve of that at all.

When STV came in here, there was strong resistance from a lot of our members and activists on the basis that nobody gives us second preference vote. The idea that nobody gives us preferences has disappeared. Nobody talks about it now, and it’s fundamentally not true.

Read the full report, Here To Stay

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