England is blighted by local one party states

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 1st April 2021

England is blighted by local one-party states: areas where it too often feels like only one party can win, where parties control nearly all the seats – and where scrutiny is a shadow of what it should be.

The issue has come to light following allegations of corruption on Liverpool council. But it’s likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier this week the Times’ Patrick Maguire published a thoughtful piece on the risks of one-party domination under First Past the Post – the zero-sum voting system where all votes not cast for the top candidates go ignored. Spread out over a whole council area, one party can get near 100% representation with less than half of the vote. When councils handle billions in contracts and public services, this is a major threat not just to democracy but to good governance too.

We wrote to the Times to draw attention to the need for proportional representation in England. Scotland and Northern Ireland already use a fair, proportional system for electing councillors – making local one-party states a thing of the past. Wales is letting local areas scrap First Past the Post and switch to the same system as Scotland and NI – the Single Transferable Vote.

Doing so would be a massive power boost for local people – ensuring every vote counted, and guaranteeing real competition across England. No one rotten boroughs and unfair fiefdoms: it’s time for fair votes.

Read the full version of our letter in the Times on Wednesday 31st March:

Patrick Maguire is right to highlight the one-party fiefdoms that plague local government in England – with growing powers often wielded with shrinking oversight. Indeed, we often see the absurdity of ‘scrutiny committees’ – reviewing millions of pounds in contracts – being dominated by the same party in office. It is a recipe for disaster.

The risks of winner-takes-all politics – of sloppy decision-making and dodgy dealings – are clear. Research for the ERS in 2015 found that councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6bn a year through a lack of scrutiny of their procurement processes.

The study looked at thousands of public sector contracts, and found that one-party dominated councils are around 50% more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils, paying far over the odds to lobbyist contractors.

Alarm bells should be ringing in Whitehall. The May elections sees a major round of elections in England that will likely see many Conservatives unfairly locked out in the North of England, and Labour in the South – securing large vote shares but unable to break through the one-party ceiling.

A shift to proportional representation isn’t a ‘nice to have’ – it’s vital to provide the effective scrutiny that voters need and deserve, and to open up the town hall fiefdoms at last. Instead, the Home Secretary is scrapping the preferential voting system for picking Mayors, in a move that will further entrench one-party domination. She must think again.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society

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