Democracy cancelled: How parties have captured hundreds of seats before local election day

Darren Hughes
Author:
Darren Hughes

Posted on the 19th April 2019

Large parts of England are effectively democracy deserts, with hundreds of thousands of potential voters denied real choice in this May’s elections. 

New research by the Electoral Reform Society ahead of next month’s vote shows 300 council seats in England have been guaranteed for one party or individual before a single ballot has been cast, weeks before the May 2nd polling day. The democratic disaster affects around 850,000 potential voters.

How? Nearly 150 councillors will win their seats without a single vote being cast, because candidates are running totally uncontested. They’ve already ‘won’. Around 270,000 potential voters in these ‘democracy deserts’ will be denied their democratic right of expressing a preference about who will represent them locally.

In the upcoming local elections, nearly 150 councillors will win their seats without a single vote being cast, because candidates are running totally uncontested. Click To Tweet

But parties or independent candidates have also been guaranteed an additional 152 seats through multi-member wards going ‘under-contested’ – i.e. where a lack of competition means that at least one seat in the ward is guaranteed for a particular party or independent candidate. There are around a further 580,000 potential voters in wards like these, according to the Electoral Reform Society research.

There are 74 councils in this round of elections which have either uncontested seats or ‘guaranteed party seats’ where a party is certain to win. That means if you live in England, there’s a fair chance your area will be affected.

There are big regional differences. The East Midlands has the highest number of uncontested seats, followed by the East of England, West Midlands and the South East in close proximity.

Elections are a cornerstone of our democracy. Yet hundreds of thousands of people are being denied the chance to exercise their most basic democratic right and have their say on who represents them.

The result is councillors who have no proper mandate from the people they serve. This lack of democratic competition is bad for scrutiny, bad for local services and bad for democracy.

Hundreds of thousands of people are being denied the chance to exercise their most basic democratic right and have their say on who represents them. Click To Tweet

The reason is fairly simple – and it’s solvable. In England, elections use the ‘first past the post’ system – where all votes that don’t elect the winner are effectively thrown away. Over many decades, areas become effectively single-party fiefdoms – ‘safe seats’ that seem impossible to challenge. We’ve all heard “X party could put a rosette on a donkey and still get in here.” Equally, we’ve all heard: “Your party can’t win here.”

It turns out, under first past the post, it’s often true – and parties take note, refusing to put resources into ‘unwinnable’ seats. That means whole areas can become electoral wastelands, with voters ignored and denied real choice.

 It doesn’t have to be like this. Since moving to a proportional voting system for local elections in 2007, the scourge of uncontested seats has almost vanished in Scotland.  Yet voters in England remain restrained by a one-person-takes-all system, where all votes not cast for the one winner go to waste. The result is a worrying number of ‘one party states’. This is a disaster for faith in politics and – as we’ve seen – for competition too. Nowhere should be a ‘no go zone’ for parties.

It’s time we brought the era of rotten boroughs to a close, by scrapping the broken first-past-the-post system in England and ensuring there is always real competition. A more proportional system would end the crisis of local ‘one party states’ and open up our politics at last.

The Welsh government is currently looking at allowing councils to switch to a more proportional voting system. England should follow suit – and now.

Read our new briefing - 'Election Cancelled' here

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