Local voting system warping our politics: Study finds over 100 councils plagued with disproportionate or wrong winner results

Posted on the 29th July 2019

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society, strictly embargoed Monday July 29th 
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  • Further local/regional breakdowns available – contact above

Campaigners have warned of a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ for local elections in England, with the most detailed analysis of May’s elections yet revealing widespread disproportionality and absurd ‘wrong winner’ results. 

In analysis published to mark 15 years since the introduction of proportional representation for Scottish local elections [1], the ERS have revealed a stark gap between the fairness of representation in Scotland and England.

In 115 English councils this May, a single party won over half the council seats up for election, despite getting fewer than half the votes in the area. This represents nearly half of all councils (46%) where local elections took place in England this year. In the most extreme case the Conservative Party took all of the seats up for election on Havant Council with just 43.9% of the vote.

In the Scottish local elections in 2017 using the Single Transferable Vote no council saw a party get more than half the seats with less than half the first preference votes.

In addition, in 17 English councils this May, the party with the largest number of votes did not secure the most seats creating ‘wrong winner’ results – a ‘damning indictment of England’s woefully out-dated voting system’, according to the ERS.

In the analysis published ahead of a new comprehensive report on elections in Britain the ERS show: 

Disproportionality 

In 115 of the 248 councils holding elections in May 2019, a party won more than 50% of the seats with less than 50% of the vote.

See the top ten most disproportionate council results (those with the largest percentage gap between votes and seats) [bottom of PR]

Wrong winners

In 17 of the 248 councils holding elections in May 2019, the party with the most votes did not win the most seats.

See below for a full list of wrong winners [bottom of PR]

In addition, there were 150 uncontested seats – won without an election taking place [2] Those seats have not been included in this analysis.

Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“This research shows how our broken electoral system is distorting local election results. First Past the Post is delivering skewed results in over a hundred councils across the country meaning many voters’ voices are unheard.

“England continues to rely on this disproportionate system for local elections, where only the votes for the top candidate to ‘get over the line’ secure representation – all others are ignored. Spread out over thousands of contests, this can lead to some parties being drastically over- or under-represented.

“In comparison, Scotland legislated to use the more proportional Single Transferable Vote. Since 2004, voters rank candidates by preference and ‘surplus’ votes are redistributed according to voters’ choices. Most advanced democracies use proportional systems where seats more closely reflect parties’ share of the vote.

“It’s time we ended the broken first-past-the-post system in England – a system that continues to warp our politics. A more proportional system would help open local democracy and make sure all voters’ voices are heard.”

Top ten most disproportionate results

Overall Top 10 over-represented Party over-represented Council control Votes for party (%) Seats for party (%) Gap (%)
Havant CON CON 43.9 100.0 56.1
Redditch CON CON 40.5 90.0 49.5
City of Lincoln LAB LAB 44.5 90.9 46.4
Tameside LAB LAB 46.2 89.5 43.2
Sandwell LAB LAB 58.5 100.0 41.5
Eastleigh LIB DEM LIB DEM 52.1 92.3 40.2
Wigan LAB LAB 41.4 80.0 38.6
Manchester LAB LAB 58.5 97.0 38.4
Tamworth CON CON 42.4 80.0 37.6
Salford LAB LAB 41.6 78.9 37.3

In no Scottish council did any one party receive more than 50% of the seats or 50% of first preference votes.

The full report: ‘The English Local Elections Audit 2019’ will be published in August.

Full list of wrong winners

Council Party with the most votes Percentage votes Percentage seats Party with the most seats Percentage votes Percentage seats
Arun CON 42 39 LIB DEM 30 41
Basildon CON 43 36 LAB 24 43
Bedford CON 31 28 LIB DEM 31 38
Blackpool CON 44 36 LAB 44 55
Brighton & Hove GREEN 36 35 LAB 35 37
Chelmsford CON 41 37 LIB DEM 40 54
Cheshire West & Chester CON 39 40 LAB 37 50
Cotswold CON 42 41 LIB DEM 42 53
Gravesham CON 41 41 LAB 40 55
Kingston-upon-Hull LIB DEM 43 47 LAB 40 53
Lewes GREEN 28 22 CON 27 46
Portsmouth LIB DEM 28 40 CON 26 47
South Oxfordshire CON 35 28 LIB DEM 25 33
South Ribble CON 45 44 LAB 35 46
Southend-on-Sea CON 27 24 LAB/IND 21/24 29/29
Stockton-on-Tees CON 33 25 LAB 33 43
Stoke-on-Trent CON 35 34 LAB 33 36

ENDS

Notes to Editors

[1] The Bill introducing the Single Transferable Vote for local elections received Royal Assent on the 29th July 2004: https://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/25034.aspx

[2] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/local-elections-cancelled-across-england-as-hundreds-of-uncontested-seats-captured-by-parties-before-polling-day/

More info on STV here: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voting-systems/types-of-voting-system/single-transferable-vote/

Full local council election results are available through Democracy Club’s Candidate Database at https://candidates.democracyclub.org.uk/uk_results/

Data on Scottish local elections taken from The Electoral Commission’s report: Bochel and Denver (2017) ‘Report on Scottish Council elections’. https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/233671/2017-Scottish-Council-elections-Report.pdf

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