Following the publication of candidate notices for the May 2023 English local elections, it is clear that the scourge of uncontested and guaranteed seats will once again limit the democratic choices of hundreds of thousands of voters.
Seats so safe, no election happens
Across 34 wards the number of candidates matches the number of seats up for election, meaning no election will take place. This means forty-six councillors will be elected without a single vote being cast. Across these wards, around 90,000 voters have been denied any say in who will represent them on the local council.
This dire situation is a direct result of the First Past The Post system used for English local elections. Just as with UK general elections, the system produces many safe seats, where one party will hold a seat for decades, despite other parties often garnering considerable support in the area. As a result, at local government level, there are some places where parties feel it is not worth the effort and expense of standing candidates. The same phenomenon was in evidence at the Welsh local elections of 2022.
In one local authority alone, East Lindsey in Lincolnshire, thirteen candidates will take their place in the council chamber without having to win a single vote. Around 25,000 voters in that district will have no opportunity to go to the polling station on 4th May and register their opinion on how services in their local area should be run.
However people vote, 70 seats are guaranteed
As well as the council seats that will be won without any votes being cast, there are a further 70 seats that are guaranteed to go to a particular party, across 64 wards. Although there will be voting in these wards, the small number of opposition candidates means that at least one seat is guaranteed to go to a particular party. While not as egregious as seats that are won completely uncontested, this still represents a restriction of democratic choice that will affect around 315,000 voters across these wards.
Uncontested seats are a political choice
It does not have to be this way. Since the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system was introduced for Scottish local elections in 2007, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of councillors elected without a vote taking place. STV is the Electoral Reform Society’s preferred system of proportional representation. It places power in the hands of the voters by letting them rank candidates in order of preference and it produces proportional outcomes that mean public opinion is represented much better than it is at local elections in England. It also makes it worthwhile for parties to stand candidates and give voters a genuine choice across the vast majority of electoral areas (the Scottish equivalent of wards).
*This research is based on analysis of Democracy Club data.
It is time for England to follow Scotland’s lead and implement STV for local elections
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