How can one party win all the seats in a local council election without all the votes?

Author:
Thea Ridley-Castle, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 11th May 2023

In May’s 2023 local elections in England, the Liberal Democrats won 72% of the seats on Bath & North East Somerset. In Broxbourne, the Conservatives won 90% of the seats that were up for election. In Tameside, the Labour party won 90% of the seats. You would think that all these parties had massive, near-universal support in their local areas. But that’s not what happened.

In Broxbourne, 50% voted Conservative; In Bath and North East Somerset, 42% voted Liberal Democrat, and in Tameside, 48% voted Labour. Certainly popular, but not universal support.

Following 2022’s local council elections, Lewisham became a 100% Labour council when 52% of Lewisham voters backed the party.

Why don’t England’s local councils represent how we vote?

Simply put, a party can win all the seats without gaining all the votes because every candidate only needs one more vote than the runner up to win the seat.

You can see how this can play out in York’s Copmanthorpe ward. The Conservative candidate was elected.

But imagine if this happened in every ward, then the Council will be run by one Party that only won 29% of the vote and would not face any opposition from within the Council.

All local elections in England use First Past the Post even if the electorate is electing more than one Councillor in their ward. When there is more than one vacancy, voters have the same number of votes as there are vacancies. E.g. if there are 2 seats available, then each voter can cast 2 votes (for different candidates), and the top two candidates will win.

This can exasperate the problem as most people will cast both their votes for candidates from the same party. In Chester West & Chester council, the ward of Christleton & Huntington saw the Conservatives win the 2 seats up for election – the vote shares were – Conservative 24.4%; Green: 21.9%; Labour: 19.9%; Independent: 17.1% and Liberal Democrat: 16.7%.

Multi seat vs single seat wards

Example: A single ward that elects two councillors might see two elected from the same party. The same voters, split between two single-seat wards might elect councillors from two different parties.

Our 2019 report, Democracy Denied: The 2019 Local and European Election Audit highlighted Havant Borough Council as the most extreme example of disparity between the vote share and seat share. The Conservatives won every councillor seat up for election with only 44% of the votes cast, leaving the majority of voters unrepresented. If the seats were allocated proportionally, the Council would have 4 Conservative Councillors and 6 from other parties. In actuality, all 10 seats were gained by the Conservatives giving them total control of Havant Borough Council.

Havant Borough Council

Ward Party of elected candidate  No. votes for winning candidate Total votes for other parties Total votes
Bedhampton Conservative 832 1,350 2,182
Cowplain Conservative 956 1,051 2,007
Emsworth Conservative 1,335 1,895 3,230
Hart Plain Conservative 909 1,205 2,114
Hayling East Conservative 1,137 1,480 2,617
Hayling West Conservative 1,273 1,563 2,836
Purbrook

*2 candidates were elected in Purbrook

Conservative 1,003 2,236

 

4,001

 

Conservative 762
St Faith Conservative 1,172 1,491 2,663
Stakes Conservative 720 956 1,676
Waterloo Conservative 1,215 1,204 2,419
Total votes 11,314 14,431 25,745

Source data: https://cdn.havant.gov.uk/public/documents/Result%20of%20Poll%20-%20Thursday_0.pdf

This vote/seat share disparity leaves thousands of voters, not only in the Havant Borough Council area but across England in every election, underrepresented or not represented at all. It’s time for this to change, votes should not end up being wasted due to our disproportionate election system.

The alternative to First Past the Post in local government

Both Scotland and Northern Ireland use a fairer voting system, the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which avoids results like these.

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.

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.

Let’s make the 2023 local election the last time First Past the Post is used for elections in the UK, join our campaign to make every vote count.

Add yor name to our call for fair votes in local elections

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