Local elections ‘cancelled’ across England, as hundreds of uncontested seats captured by parties before polling day

Posted on the 18th April 2019

Local elections ‘cancelled’ across England, as hundreds of uncontested seats captured by parties before polling day


Large parts of England are effectively ‘democracy deserts’, with hundreds of thousands of potential voters denied real choice in this May’s elections, according to unprecedented new analysis by the Electoral Reform Society. 

300 council seats in England have been guaranteed for one party or individual before a single ballot has been cast, weeks before the May 2nd polling day – affecting around 850,000 potential voters.

This includes nearly 150 councillors who will win their seats without a single vote being cast. In these wards the number of nominated candidates equals the number of councillors to be elected. Around 270,000 potential voters in these ‘democracy deserts’ will be denied their democratic right of expressing a preference about who will represent them locally, the ERS briefing shows.

Parties or independent candidates have also been guaranteed an additional 152 seats through multi-member wards going ‘under-contested’ – i.e. where a lack of competition means that at least 1 seat in the ward is guaranteed for a particular party or independent candidate. There are around a further 580,000 potential voters in wards such as these

The findings [see full briefing for breakdowns]:

  • Around 850,000 potential voters in England are in wards where a party or individual is guaranteed a seat – weeks before polling day [1]
  • 148 seats will see candidates handed councillor roles without any electoral challenge, meaning that for many, next month’s local elections are effectively cancelled. These uncontested seats are spread across 47 councils throughout England.
  • The Conservatives are set to gain 137 of these uncontested seats, with the Liberal Democrats picking up five, four going to independent candidates and Labour securing two
  • Across the country, parties have picked up a further 152 guaranteed seats long before polling day, as multi-member wards up for election go ‘under-contested’ across 54 councils. This is where there is insufficient competition to make the ward fully competitive.
  • There are 74 councils in this round of elections which have either uncontested seats or ‘guaranteed party seats’ where a party is certain to win.
  • The Conservatives will secure 130 seats in these under-contested wards, with Labour gaining an additional 15 seats. The Lib Dems pick up six and one will go to an independent candidate.
  • The East Midlands has the highest number of uncontested seats, followed by the East of England, West Midlands and the South East in close proximity. Full tables in the briefing.

See the top ten ‘Rotten Boroughs’ by council area [bottom of PR]

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society, said:

“Elections are a cornerstone of our democracy. Yet hundreds of thousands of people are being denied the chance to exercise their most basic democratic right and have their say on who represents them.

“For these potential voters, democracy has been cancelled, and they are going totally unheard. It is frankly a disgrace in the 21st century for parties to have landed 300 seats without a single ballot being cast. Around 850,000 potential voters in England live in wards where a party or individual is guaranteed a seat – weeks before polling day.

“Large parts of England are at risk of becoming ‘democracy deserts.’ This research also highlights ‘under-contested’ seats in multi-member wards, where representation is guaranteed due to a lack of competition. The result is councillors who have no proper mandate from the people they serve. This lack of democratic competition is bad for scrutiny, bad for local services and bad for democracy.

“Since moving to a proportional voting system [STV} for local elections in 2007, the scourge of uncontested seats has almost vanished in Scotland.  Yet voters in England remain restrained by a one-person-takes-all system, where all votes not cast for the one winner go to waste. The result is a worrying number of ‘one party states’, safe seats and electoral wastelands. This is a disaster for faith in politics and – as we’ve seen – for competition too. Nowhere should be a ‘no go zone’ for parties.

“It’s time we brought the era of rotten boroughs to a close, by scrapping the broken first-past-the-post system in England and ensuring there is always real competition. A more proportional system would end the crisis of local ‘one party states’ and open up our politics at last.”

The Welsh government is currently consulting on allowing councils to switch to a more proportional voting system.


Read the ERS’ ‘Election Cancelled’ briefing on uncontested seats here (EMBARGOED LINK): https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Election-Cancelled-Uncontested-Seats-Briefing-April-2019.pdf


Total uncontested and ‘guaranteed party’ seats by region

Region Total uncontested and guaranteed seats (no voting or party guaranteed at least one seat) Electorate affected (number of potential voters in wards where there is at least one uncontested seat, either because of no voting or where there will be voting but there is at least one guaranteed seat)
East Midlands 90                                        237,171
East of England 56                                        162,150
West Midlands 45                                        117,081
South East 45                                        134,798
North West 26                                           65,951
South West 16                                           33,882
Yorkshire & Humber 16                                           63,027
North East 6                                           31,988
TOTAL 300                                        846,048


Councils where the highest number of councillors will be elected without voting taking place [2]:

  1. Fenland (Cambridgeshire) = 12 councillors
  2. Rutland = 8 councillors
  3. West Suffolk = 8 councillors
  4. Wychavon (Worcestershire) = 8 councillors
  5. Lichfield (Staffordshire) = 7 councillors
  6. Ashford (Kent) = 6 councillors
  7. Blaby (Leicestershire) = 5 councillors
  8. Melton (Leicestershire) = 5 councillors
  9. Sevenoaks (Kent) = 5 councillors
  10. South Holland (Lincolnshire) = 5 councillors

Councils which have the highest number of guaranteed councillors for one party, before any voting has taken place [3]:

  1. Fenland (Cambridgeshire) = 15 councillors
  2. South Holland (Lincolnshire) = 13 councillors
  3. West Suffolk = 13 councillors
  4. Rutland = 12 councillors
  5. Sevenoaks (Kent) = 11 councillors
  6. Lichfield (Staffordshire) = 10 councillors
  7. Melton (Leicestershire) = 10 councillors
  8. North Kesteven (Lincolnshire) = 10 councillors
  9. Blaby (Leicestershire) = 9 councillors
  10. Wychavon (Worcestershire) = 9 councillors

Notes to Editors

[1] Electorate sizes should be treated as estimates. For most of the wards, ERS researchers used Boundary Commission for England data from 2015. Where there was evidence that there have been boundary changes in a council since 2015, we have used figures from the most recent Local Government Boundary Commission for England review for that local authority.

[2] Includes only councillors elected in wards without any voting because the number of candidates in the ward equals the number of councillors to be elected in that ward.

[3] Includes councillors elected in seats where no voting will take place due to the number of candidates equalling the number of councillors to be elected or where voting will take place but a paucity of candidates means a party is guaranteed at least one seat in that ward.

The Electoral Reform Society are calling for a fairer local electoral system which more accurately reflects people’s wishes.

Scotland has been enjoying a fairer voting system since 2007. Voter choice has more than doubled, uncontested seats have all but become a thing of the past, and the rotten boroughs that once plagued Scotland have been undone.

Introducing the Scottish system of elections into England and Wales would mean that people’s votes were more accurately represented, and there would no longer be any ‘no go’ areas for the big parties.

Further information

Hansard Society – Audit of Political Engagement 16: https://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/publications/reports/audit-of-political-engagement-16

Electoral Reform Society – Voters in England and Wales are being let down by their local democracy:

Electoral Reform Society – The Cost of One-Party Councils


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