Even council leaders are uncomfortable with the ‘one party states’ of First Past the Post

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 16th May 2019

May’s local elections in England showed just how unfit-for-purpose the voting system is, as voters were left with random results and warped council chambers.

The elections saw big swings against the two main parties, as well as a rise in the number of independents. Professor John Curtice said it reflected a shift away from the Big Two.

Despite smaller parties and independents breaking through in many places, England’s First Past the Post system meant results in many areas were disproportionate – allowing the two main parties to win large majorities with increasingly smaller percentages of the popular vote.

In Havant, the Conservatives won all 11 seats up for election, despite receiving less than half the vote. Overall, the Conservatives hold 33 of the 38 councillors on Havant Council.

Meanwhile, in the West Midlands district of Sandwell, Labour won all 24 seats up for election, despite over 40% of votes going to other parties. This means Labour continues to hold all 72 council seats on Sandwell Council.

Now a new report from the think tank Localis has renewed the idea of ensuring councillors are elected using a fair, proportional voting system – as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The authors note: “Recently there have been calls [from ERS] for a more proportional voting system in local government, giving voters a more nuanced choice and reducing disillusionment among voters.” 

More interestingly though are comments from council figures themselves, many of whom are – like voters – concerned about the number of ‘one party states’ in England: 

“Two Conservative council leaders from rural areas felt that a large majority was not doing them any extravagant favours. One noted: ‘I have too big of a majority, rather than dealing with the opposition, it’s keeping all the members of my Conservative group happy.’

“The second, from a similar political position said that, ‘a stronger opposition would be better. When you have very few individuals acting as the opposition, it is unhealthy because you aren’t as challenged as much as you could be’

“Of the many leaders who spoke to us about the importance of consensus, only a small number were from councils with small political majorities. Leaders need a strong challenge, regardless of which party it comes from; a strong majority doesn’t preclude a leader from facing opposition and a strong opposition doesn’t guarantee effective challenging of a leader.

“Regardless of its internal effect, political control of councils impacts on central-local relations. Several interviewees recalled the adage that ‘every opposition party talks localism whilst every government exercises centralism’. Any long period of single-party dominance in Westminster tends to be mirrored by charges of favouritism from councils dominated by the other main party.”

That favouritism is arguably a product of the bloc nature of the way we elect our councils – which leads to huge areas dominated by one party and big swings between governing parties. As the report notes: “These claims are not unfounded – there is evidence that metropolitan ‘red’ boroughs fared better under New Labour, as rural ‘blue’ shires have under the Conservatives.”

If every vote counted, under a voting system that ensured councils matched the political diversity of their areas, this situation would be less tenable: parties would have to listen to and cater for voters wherever they were, not just in the ‘heartlands’ or ‘safe seats’.

 Read the report here: http://www.localis.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/028_HittingReset_WEB_AWK.pdf

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