England’s 2019 local elections – The places where around half of voters go unrepresented

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 13th May 2019

On 2 May, thousands of people were elected to serve as councillors in local authorities across England. While a lot of attention has been given to the overall performances of political parties and independent candidates, little scrutiny has been given to some of the unfair and perverse results caused by the voting system used for local elections in England.

As with UK general elections, the voting system used for English local elections is first past the post (FPTP). This system makes possible a series of strange electoral outcomes, from every seat on a council being won by a single party, to the party winning most votes in a local authority not winning most councillors.

Despite this system being in use for decades for English local elections, you do not need to look far to see how things could be different. Since 2007, Scotland has used a much fairer voting system, the Single Transferrable Vote (STV), for local elections. Northern Irish local elections, which also took place last week, have used the STV system for many years. Using STV means that the make-up of councillors elected to serve on local authorities are much more likely to be in line with how local people have actually voted.

Prior to 2007, some Scottish councils were almost totally dominated by one party, despite that party getting nowhere near all of the votes in that area. Since the introduction of STV, there are no Scottish councils in this situation. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their English counterparts, where FPTP means that unfair results, such as the ones from last week highlighted below, still occur on a regular basis.

In Sandwell, in the West Midlands, Labour candidates won all 24 councillor places up for election, despite over 40% of votes going to candidates not representing the Labour party. This means that two-fifths of voters who turned out in Sandwell did not see a single candidate from their chosen party elected to their local council. It also means that Labour continue to hold all 72 council seats on Sandwell Council.

Sandwell Council

In Havant, on the south coast in Hampshire, an almost mirror image outcome occurred, with the Conservatives winning all 11 council seats up for election last week, despite winning fewer than half of the votes. This means that an astonishing 56% of voters did not see a single candidate elected from their party of choice. Overall, the Conservatives hold 33 of 38 councillors on Havant Council.

Havant Council

Supporters of FPTP often argue that it produces clear wins for parties who get the most votes, however this is far from always the case. Last week, the Conservatives took 43% of the votes in the Basildon Council area, to Labour’s 24%, yet Labour won 6 councillors and the Conservatives won only 5 councillors. There was a closer result in Kingston-upon-Hull but again there was a ‘wrong winner’. The Liberal Democrats took 43% of the votes, to Labour’s 40% but Labour won 10 councillors and the Liberal Democrats won only 9 councillors.

Basildon Council

Kingston-upon-Hull Council

With councils in Wales likely to soon be given the opportunity of conducting local elections using STV, there is a danger that local elections in England will become the only ones in the UK continuing to use the outdated and unfair FPTP system. In order for votes to be fairly translated into representation on local councils throughout the UK, it is vital that a switch to STV for local elections also takes place in England.

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