It is now 15 years since Scotland abandoned First Past the Post for local government elections and adopted the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. What many will have seen as a small shift in process has led to a sea-change in local politics, an end to ‘one party states’, and more power for voters. Within that decade and a half we have grown to understand what other countries like Ireland knew already: with fair votes comes better democracy.
I have worked for ERS Scotland since 2016, but back in 2007 I was a volunteer for the Society, spending six months talking to voters about the new system, and attending an election count as an observer. From what I saw on the ground, it took parties slightly longer than the electorate to realise that this change to the voting system also meant a whole new way of doing politics. Now every vote would count – and parties would have to act differently.
Since then, competitive local elections have helped to refresh local democracy across Scotland. I would still like to see more cooperation between parties at a council level, but within our multi-member wards, councillors generally have very good relations regardless of affiliation. Councils across Scotland have experienced power-sharing, with a wider range of parties working together in local government.
STV allows voters to not only express their preferences between parties but also within them, this means that councillors no longer have the option to be distant and unaccountable without consequences.
There are still a few who miss the old way of doing things though – I’ve occasionally heard councillors complain that they have to work harder under the new system. But I have never once heard a voter make the same complaint!
Solely changing the voting system has not been a cure-all: Scotland’s local government is still too centralised and top-down. There are too few councillors, and Scotland has one of the lowest rates of local representation in Europe. That’s why ERS Scotland has been playing a leadership role in the Our Democracy coalition; the campaign for a truly powerful and participatory local democracy.
Because of our increasingly long experience of proportional systems as a nation (15 years for local government and 23 years for Holyrood), when we now come to use Westminster’s one-person-takes-all system, it seems perverse and unwieldly. Westminster-style voting systems are shown up as the blunt instrument they are – unable to turn a multitude of your hopes into a binary choice.
That’s why the people of Scotland are well placed to say to their English and Welsh neighbours that there is a better way of doing democracy, and we have the proof.
STV means an end to wasted votes. For those looking for advice on using the full power of that vote, read Phil’s blog on it. You can read more about PR in Scotland.
Sign our petition to upgrade local elections in England and Wales