England’s local elections show the warped world of First Past the Post

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 3rd May 2024

Local people are best placed to decide the priorities of their local government. But as we say today, voters in England and Wales have very little impact on who sits in their local council chambers.

With many of the 2023 local election results now declared, the First Past the Post system used across England has once again failed to reflect the views of voters in who runs their local community.

Rather than simply representing the strength of support for the different parties in their area, as councils in Scotland and Northern Ireland do, England’s councils are often wildly different from their local communities and the votes of those who live there.

Thursday’s local elections also saw some parties picking up as much as 90% of the available seats on less than half of the vote share. 

It’s not just that the bigger parties do slightly better than their support deserves, once the votes go through the tumbler of First Past the Post, who can tell how they will come out because of how disproportional a system it is.

The distortion of election results under First Past the Post produces some pretty funky results when you look at the numbers. Our research team have identified a series of results where voter’s actual choices have been almost disregarded under England’s winner-takes-all system.

When coming second means you come first  

Unbelievably, First Past the Post can’t even guarantee that the party with the most votes wins the most seats. In Gosport, the Lib Dems managed to turn a second place in votes to a majority of the seats up for election.

In Sunderland, the Conservatives are the second most popular party – but only won the third largest group of councillors up for election. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand, just beat Reform UK into third place by 0.9 percentage points, and First Past the Post propelled them into winning the second largest group of councillors while Reform UK failed to win a single seat.

In Broxbourne, First Past the Post transformed the narrowest Conservative majority into a stonking 90% of the seats up for election.

When the results don’t look anything like how we vote, how are voters supposed to hold their councils to account? With council tax rising across the country and local services under extreme pressure, we need to know that the Councillors we have trusted with our vote are actually in the Council Chamber to properly scrutinise and improve our local areas.

Nobody can look at these examples and think our system is working. It’s failing voters and it’s failing communities. From Gosport to Broxbourne, election after election we see thousands of voters ignored by First Past the Post.

(For councils with wards that elect more than one councillor, we have calculated vote shares by using the number of votes for each party’s best-placed candidate in each ward. This is the approach taken by local election experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of the Elections Centre, a major resource for local election data in the UK) 

 Votes wasted, voters ignored 

Under First Past the Post, all votes not cast for the one (or multiple) winners in each ward go to waste. Spread across a whole council area, parties can often secure a substantial number of votes and still be left with zero representation. 

No party should be able to sweep the board on a minority of the vote. But again and again, we see parties handed huge numbers of seats entirely out of step with their number of votes, leaving many voters feeling their voice has been ignored.

We are calling for a shift to proportional representation for English councils and to end the use of First Past the Post in local government. 

A tried and tested alternative

There isa clearalternative to the unfair results we have seen in England. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland use the fairerproportional voting Single Transferable Vote system,avoiding the distorted and random results produced by First Past the Post. STV is a form of proportional representation, that can breathe new life and energy into our local democracy.

Since STV was introduced in Scotland in 2007, one-party fiefdoms have become a thing of the past. In 2020, Wales passed legislation allowing councils to introduce the fair and proportional Single Transferable Vote system.

Three councils are preparing to run consultations on moving over to this system.

With STV, voters would live in wards with one or more councillors, just like now. Except, rather than the norm being that one party can dominate all the councillors, you get a group of councillors that reflect the diversity of local opinion. Ensuring everyone is represented, your council budget is properly scrutinised, and you have multiple people and parties to ask for help from on local issues.

Proportional representation would mean fairer results at local elections and would create council chambers that better reflect the way people voted.

It’s to scrap first past the post and finally fairly represent us all in local government. 

Add your name to our call for fair local elections in England

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