Devolution needs democracy – politicians should back fair votes for local government

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 20th July 2015

Tomorrow the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill has its Third Reading in the House of Lords – the final stage before it goes back to the Commons. It’s a Bill that will have a major impact on Britain’s constitution. 

It’s important to the ERS because so often when politicians, journalists and others talk about localism, they’ve focused on the additional powers that local politicians should have.  But the ways in which other politicians and—more importantly—voters hold them to account whilst they exercise these powers are all too often ignored.

During Report Stage last week, an amendment to change the electoral system for local elections to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) was defeated by 222 votes to 75.  This news is disappointing, unlike the amendment agreed just thirty minutes earlier to introduce Votes at 16 for local elections, on which the Society also briefed Peers.

From a purely partisan perspective, it is perhaps surprising that Conservative Peers voted against introducing more proportional voting for local elections.  All five of the existing combined authorities are in the Labour-leaning North.  And the metro-Mayors they favour installing for combined authorities, in exchange for greater spending and policymaking powers, are presumably quite likely to be Labour.  They are also likely to be scrutinised by councillor cohorts who are disproportionately Labour-affiliated. ‘One party states’ aren’t good for local democracy or scrutiny, whichever party you support.

Conversely, it is arguably short-sighted that so many Labour Peers opposed local STV – it’s only a matter of time before county councils in the Tory-leaning South apply to become combined authorities, and many councillors in local authorities dominated by one party actually want other parties to be represented to stir things up slightly.

For the public, local STV would result in better local governance.  Many councils are currently ‘one-party states,’ where more than two-thirds of councillors are Labour or Conservative.  In some, such as Manchester, 100% of councillors are from the same party!

This is usually because that party has received almost or slightly over half the votes.  This is an impressive electoral showing.  The difference is that under STV, the same party would still run the council – but with the benefit of better scrutiny.

When it was debated at Committee Stage and Report Stage, the STV amendment’s opponents deployed number of familiar but misguided claims about introducing proportional representation for local government (addressed here).  ‘Voters opted in 2011 to keep first-past-the-post’; when in fact, they opted only to reject AV for the Commons.  ‘It would cost too much’; when in fact, costs largely could be offset by switching to ‘all-up’ elections or merging polling days or counts.  ‘The boundaries would take too long to redraw’; when in fact, the Boundary Commission could do so quite quickly – there are already decent draft models out there.

Over 100 councils in England currently have two-thirds or more of their councillors from one party, who are able to rush through decisions and amend standing orders with little if any scrutiny or opposition.  Between 2011 and 2014, there were 382 uncontested elections in wards.

In contrast, since STV was introduced in 2007 for Scottish local elections, not a single council is now a ‘one party state’, and not a single ward has gone uncontested (compared to dozens before).  STV encourages parties to campaign in areas they previously thought unwinnable, whilst also increasing voters’ choice and voters’ voice.

Electors can reward and punish individual council candidates, while retaining the constituency link.  And there is a precedent that when power is devolved from Westminster (as to Greater London, Scotland and Wales), it is accompanied by a proportional voting system.

In addition to all these, another reason the Society hopes to see such an amendment tabled in the Commons when the Bill returns, is that STV will enable local communities to elect local councillors who are better able to scrutinise local spending and decision-making.

If we want democracy alongside devolution, we need a fairer voting system for local government.

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