Fairer results and real representation: 20 years of PR on the London Assembly

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 4th May 2020

Although the Greater London Mayor and Assembly elections have been postponed until next year, a time will come when campaigning will resume. So it’s worth looking at how the Assembly is elected.

If the elections do take place in May 2021, votes using proportional representation systems will take place in all three British nations on the same day. The Additional Member System (AMS) is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and London Assembly.

This week marks 20 years since AMS was first used to elect the London Assembly.

There are two types of representatives elected under AMS:

  • Constituency representatives, with one representative elected per constituency using First-Past-The-Post (FPTP)
  • Additional member representatives, elected in a wider geographic region. These aim to ensure the overall outcome of the election has a greater degree of proportionality than would be the case under FPTP alone

Examining the history of elections to the London Assembly provides an example of how this works. There have been five London Mayor and Assembly elections, with the first taking place in 2000 and then at four-year intervals until the last set of elections in 2016.

Across the course of these five elections, there have been 70 constituency Assembly Members (AMs) elected under FPTP. The constituency AMs elected in these seats have all belonged to just two parties, with the Conservatives (36 AMs) and Labour (34 AMs) sharing out the spoils almost equally.

If the London Assembly had been elected using solely FPTP, then the voters of parties other than Labour and Conservative would have gone completely unrepresented across the 20 years since the Assembly was founded.

This would have been a travesty, given the relatively high levels of support other parties have received during that time – particularly as the London Mayor has usually represented either the Labour or Conservative parties (the only exception being Ken Livingstone’s first term, where he was elected as an Independent).

Given that, it is especially important that representatives of other parties, where they achieve decent levels of support, are able to hold the Mayor to account in the Assembly. Proper scrutiny requires a healthy political mix.

Fortunately, the Additional Member part of the Assembly voting system has ensured that other parties’ voters have achieved representation on the body. For example, across five elections, 15 Liberal Democrat Additional Member AMs have been elected, 11 Green Additional Member AMs, 4 UKIP Additional Member AMs.

Representatives of at least four parties have been elected at each Assembly election and five parties have been represented at three out of the five elections, including the last election in 2016. This is a far fairer outcome for voters than would have been the case if the Assembly was elected using FPTP alone.

While the use of AMS is a big improvement on FPTP, the ERS’ favoured system of Proportional Representation is the Single Transferrable Vote (STV). A move to STV for the London Assembly, as well as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, would provide even better options and outcomes for voters.

Under the AMS systems used in Britain, voters have to give their Additional Member votes to a party, which has already decided the order in which their Additional Member candidates will be elected. In contrast, with STV the power is in the hands of the voter, who ranks the candidates in order of preference – even being able to choose between candidates of the same party.

Whilst acknowledging that things could be even better, next May should provide a good opportunity to contrast the fairer outcomes in the London Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, with the often very disproportional results we will see in the English local authority elections, held solely under FPTP.

This piece was written at the start of April. Image credit via Flickr.

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