If two party politics isn’t dead, it has certainly taken a big hit over the first half of 2019. The English local elections and European Parliament election, both held in May, saw big gains for those other than the ‘traditional’ two parties – Conservative and Labour.
Voters appear keen to shop around at the ballot box. However, breaking out of the constraints of the winner-takes-all First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system – one that is infamous for distorting results – can be difficult.
In our newly published report Democracy Denied: The 2019 Election Audit analysis of the English local elections, held under FPTP, reveals some startling injustices, which affect all parties negatively in one area or another. However, the real losers are voters who do not see their choices properly reflected in their local council chambers.
For example, 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 most extreme example was Havant Borough Council, where the Conservatives won every single councillor up for election with only a 44% share of the votes cast, leaving the choices of a majority of voters unrepresented.
Other areas saw parties winning the most council seats, of those up for election, when they had not won the most votes in the area. One of the most striking examples was Basildon Borough Council, where Labour won less than a quarter of the vote – almost half the Conservatives’ vote tally – yet elected more councillors.
Even worse for democracy are the scourge of uncontested and under-contested seats where a party is guaranteed a seat or seats, due to a lack of candidates being put forward in their ward. We uncovered hundreds of uncontested and under-contested seats and wards in councils across England affecting over 800,000 potential voters. Democracy wasn’t just lacking in these wards – it was effectively cancelled.
The somewhat unexpected European Parliament election was therefore a breath of fresh air for many voters, in some respects. While the D’Hondt Closed Party List voting system isn’t perfect, it is a proportional system, which gives voters a better chance of their vote counting than FPTP does.
It is the Scottish local elections, however, that provide a real contrast with the English local election results. The proportional, multi-member Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, used in Scottish local elections since 2007, brings a host of democratic benefits, from greater competition and choice to much fairer and more proportional outcomes. We bring these to light by analysing the results of the most recent Scottish local elections, held in 2017.
Commenting on the report elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice said,
“The return of multi-party politics in the wake of the Brexit impasse seems likely to result in renewed debate about the merits of electoral reform. This analysis of how first-past-the-post operated in this year’s English local elections, and how it compares with more proportional systems, provides valuable evidence that will help inform that debate.”
As talk grows of a General Election, these discussions are far from academic. Voting systems have a profound effect on both representation and outcomes – and indeed how people express themselves. Polling for this report found that more than one in five people plan to vote ‘tactically’ in the next general election, not voting for who they want, but voting against someone else. This is not how democracy should be working. The problems caused by FPTP at local level in England apply across the UK at general elections.
This is the first major analysis of this year’s local elections – and we’re grateful to Democracy Club for providing the full set of results and also to the many ERS supporters who donated to fund this report. All three sets of elections analysed here offer some fascinating insights into the state of politics in Britain – and how voting systems affect representation.
Read the report - Democracy Denied: The 2019 Elections Audit