Election Audit 2019: ‘Democracy denied’ as report reveals how voters are left voiceless across England

Posted on the 22nd August 2019

England has large areas which are ‘democracy deserts’, according to a new report on this year’s elections from the UK’s leading democracy organisation. 

Councils across England saw the wrong party winning, hugely disproportionate results, and voters left voiceless with a lack of choice and many seats totally uncontested, new analysis by the Electoral Reform Society shows.

The analysis reveals an electorate trying to break out of the ‘traditional’ party system – but people of all parties left unrepresented by winner-takes-all results. Voters in the European elections saw their choices more fairly reflected.

The findings come in a major analysis of May’s local elections, as well as the European vote and the most recent Scottish local elections in 2017.

The report, Democracy Denied: The 2019 Election Audit, features extensive new analysis of local, regional and national results for parties and voters:

‘Wrong winners’: There were 17 local authorities where the party getting the most votes did not get the most councillors up for election. And in nearly half (115) of all English local councils, one party was able to secure more than half of the councillors up for election – despite winning less than half the vote.

Uncontested seats: The ERS uncovered hundreds of uncontested and under-contested seats and wards in councils across England affecting over 800,000 potential voters. “Democracy wasn’t just lacking in these wards – it was effectively cancelled,” the ERS say. In contrast, there were no uncontested seats in Northern Ireland, which has long used the proportional STV voting system.

Lack of choice: Despite voters showing a renewed desire to support a wide range of parties, there were approximately 2.65 million voters who live in wards where only a binary choice was on offer in May.

Rotten boroughs and one party states: Including Havant Borough Council, where the Conservatives won every single councillor up for election with only a 44% share of the votes cast. Other areas saw parties that came second in votes get the most seats, including Basildon Borough Council, where Labour won less than a quarter of the vote – almost half the Conservatives’ vote tally – yet elected more councillors.

General Election:  BMG polling for this report found that more than one in five people (22%) plan to vote ‘tactically’ in the next general election, not voting for who they want, but voting against someone else (contact for more information/cross-tabs).

Exaggerating regional divides: There were some major discrepancies in how different voters were represented in different regions. For example, in the North East it took 2,124 Conservative votes to elect a Conservative councillor and only 1,327 Labour votes. In the South East it took 2,357 Labour votes to elect a councillor but only 1,325 Conservative votes. in the South West the Liberal Democrats benefited, needing only 1,401 votes to gain a councillor, Labour needed 3,132 votes.

Across the country, the Green Party fared worse, needing over 4,000 votes to elect a single councillor. North East – over 9000 votes per Green elected – and just 1,300 for Labour. (Full tables below and in report – regional breakdowns also available).

Of parties nationally, only the Conservatives actively benefited from FPTP – though they lost out too in some areas. FPTP is depriving all parties of a foothold in different regions, increasing divisions in UK, the ERS say.

European elections and Scotland: The ERS found that both the European election and most recent Scottish local elections were much more representative of voters than English locals, with far lower levels of disproportionality. 75% of ‘first preference’ votes in Scotland secured representation – compared to just 55% in England, the ERS found (Read the report for full European and Scottish figures).

Further local/regional information may be available on request. 

Elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice has now commented on the report:

“The return of multi-party politics in the wake of the Brexit impasse seems likely to result in renewed debate about the merits of electoral reform.

“This analysis of how first-past-the-post operated in this year’s English local elections, and how it compares with more proportional systems, provides valuable evidence that will help inform that debate.”

Writing in the report, Dr Jess Garland, Director of Research and Policy at the ERS, said:

“If two party politics isn’t dead, it has certainly taken a big hit over the first half of 2019. The English local elections and European Parliament election, both held in May, saw big gains for those other than the ‘traditional’ two parties – Conservative and Labour. But millions of supporters of all parties and none saw their voices ignored by a warped First Past the Post (FPTP) system.

“Voters appear keen to shop around at the ballot box. However, breaking out of the constraints of winner-takes-all – a system that is infamous for distorting results – can be difficult.

“Our analysis of the English local elections, held under FPTP, reveals some startling injustices, which affect all parties negatively in one area or another. The real losers are voters who do not see their choices properly reflected in their local council chambers.”

She added:

“We’ve shown how England is full of ‘democracy deserts’. But there is an alternative to this unfair set-up. It’s time to switch to a proportional voting system where seats match votes, like in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Voters are tired of their voices not being heard – let’s get on with reforming the broken system and restoring some trust in our process.”

Contact press office for additional quotes and other angles.

ENDS

Report link: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Democracy-Denied-The-2019-Election-Audit.pdf

Notes to Editors

Average votes required for party to elect a councillor, by region and overall
North East North West Yorkshire & Humber East Midlands West Midlands East of England South East South West Overall (England-wide average)
Con 2124 1759 2003 1213 1205 1210 1325 1530 1393
Green 9033 6446 9023 5803 2769 3687 3683 2723 4140
Lab 1317 1494 2603 1537 1624 2078 2357 3132 1826
LD 1786 2372 2914 1727 1866 1604 1770 1401 1755
Ind 1335 1406 1584 939 1109 1161 1360 1163 1222
Oth 6349 11210 5817 16032 6400 5706 26088 52022 9441
All 1725 1820 2567 1413 1487 1534 1712 1641 1678
Ind = Independents and candidates from local groups or Residents’ Associations
Oth = Other political parties that got fewer than 5% of votes across the country
All = average number of votes required to elect Cllr across all parties

National figures – England
DV score represents disproportionality of results. A positive value = over-represented by FPTP, negative = under-represented. 

Overall  Votes for

elected

candidates

Votes for

unelected

candidates

Total votes Councillors elected % votes % seats Votes required per elected councillor DV Score
Con 2849276 1916517 4765793 3422 34.4 41.4 1393 7.1
Green 309763 787348 1097111 265 7.9 3.2 4140 -4.7
Lab 2029177 1648209 3677386 2014 26.5 24.4 1826 -2.1
LD 1360588 1003744 2364332 1347 17.1 16.3 1755 -0.7
Ind 960906 447966 1408872 1153 10.2 14.0 1222 3.8
Oth 40565 506992 547557 58 4.0 0.7 9441 -3.2
Total 7550275 6310776 13861051 8259 100.0 100.0 1678

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