First Past the Post means 100,000 Welsh voters were denied a say in the last local elections

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 15th May 2024

Local elections are an important part of democracy in Wales. But did you know that thousands of voters have a councillor that nobody voted for at all?

Due to the Westminster-style First Past the Post system (FPTP) used to elect councillors, a scourge of uncontested seats is damaging Welsh local democracy. An uncontested seat occurs where the number of candidates matches the number of seats up for election in a ward. When this happens, those candidates automatically become councillors, without local people in that area casting a single vote.

At the 2022 Welsh local elections, over 100,000 potential voters were denied the chance to cast a ballot due to these uncontested seats. Nine of the 22 Welsh council areas had at least one uncontested seat. Across the country, 74 candidates became councillors without voters having a say. This means 6% of all Welsh councillors taking their place following the 2022 local elections did not have to face the scrutiny of the ballot box.

Why do uncontested seats exist?

It might seem odd that nobody stood against these 74 candidates. Some would argue this is due to a lack of people coming forward to stand as councillors, but the reality is that the way we elect our councillors is the biggest culprit.

We know this because when we change the system, the problem all but disappears.

First Past the Post is an all-or-nothing system. Challenger candidates can put in weeks of work and win substantial shares of the vote but get nowhere at all. The barrier to winning election is just too high to make it worth trying.

But a lack of competition is not healthy for anyone. When uncontested seats become the norm, how are voters supposed to express their views? Years can pass without any input from the public.

What can we do to make every election competitive?

We have practical evidence from Scotland regarding what happened to uncontested seats when local authorities stop using First Past the Post. At their local elections in 2007 they rolled out a new voting system, the Single Transferable Vote (STV). At the final Scottish local elections using First Past the Post, held in 2003, there were 61 uncontested seats (5% of the total seats) but in the first two sets of Scottish local elections held under STV, there were zero uncontested seats. Although there have been a small number of uncontested seats at the two most recent sets of Scottish local elections, these are still at a much lower level than occurred under FPTP local elections in Scotland and which continue to occur in Wales.

Uncontested seats are much reduced under STV because councillors are elected in multi-member wards that ensure candidates have a genuine chance of being elected if they are able to garner a reasonable level of support among the local community. This means that even in areas where one party might be dominant, there is an incentive for other parties or independents to put forward candidates.

Welsh councils can follow Scotland and adopt the Single Transferable Vote

Gwynedd, Powys and Ceredigion are about to consult residents on a potential switch to STV, and all are near the top of the table for uncontested seats in 2022. In Gwynedd, a staggering 28 councillors (41% of the total) took their place without a vote being cast. In Powys, there were 7 uncontested seats (10% of the total) and there were 5 uncontested seats in Ceredigion (13% of the total). A change to STV in these councils would bring back competitive elections in wards    across Wales, giving voters a say once again.

There are many other reasons why a change to STV would benefit Welsh residents, not least in ensuring that the composition of local councils better reflects the way people actually vote in local elections. For example, under STV, it would be very unlikely that a party could win 70% of seats on a council, with just 47% of the votes, as Labour were able to do in Cardiff at the 2022 local elections. Similarly, Plaid Cymru won 60% of the seats, with 41% of the votes, in Ynys Mon.

The Welsh Democracy Deadline

A window of opportunity exists between now and 15 November 2024, for individual Welsh local councils to switch to using STV for their local authority elections. For this change to take place in time for the next set of local elections, in 2027, two-thirds of councillors on a local authority will have to vote in favour of the change at a formal council meeting.

Three councils (Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Powys) will soon begin public consultations, where they will seek the views of local residents on a potential switch of systems, before councillors make the final decision via votes in their council chambers.

We’ve made a tool so that people can easily contact their councillors in support of moving to the Single Transferable Vote. You can find it here.

It is time for these three councils and all the other councils in Wales to make the switch to STV, a move that will help energise local democracy in the country.

Add your name to our call for councils in Wales to ditch First Past the Post

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