London’s Local Elections: Lessons from Scotland

Posted on the 28th April 2022

In May 2022, local elections will take place throughout Scotland and Wales, as well as in many parts of England, including the election of all local councillors in Greater London.

In Scotland, these will be the fourth set of local elections held using the Single Transferable vote (STV). STV puts power in voters’ hands and allows them to make nuanced choices, not just between parties but often between candidates of the same party. It is a straightforward system for voters to use, ranking candidates in order of preference – 1,2,3 etc. Electors can give their first preference to their favourite candidate, while also being able to influence the election’s outcome via their later preferences.

STV in Scotland sees councillors elected in multi-member wards of typically between three or four seats. These larger wards are designed to ensure that the diversity of opinion in an area is at least relatively well represented by those candidates who are elected and by extension secure a reasonably proportional outcome across the council area as a whole. It is highly unusual, almost impossible, for candidates from the same party to secure all the seats in one of these STV multi-member wards, unless it is a genuine reflection of overwhelming support for one party above all others.

This year’s local elections in Wales will take place under First Past the Post (FPTP). However, following the Senedd’s passing of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, Welsh local authorities will soon have the power to switch to using STV for their local elections.

In England, there has been no progress towards the adoption of STV for local elections and this year’s elections will again take place under FPTP.

London’s councils and the problems of FPTP

The election of all councillors across Greater London’s 32 boroughs take place in one go, every four years. As such, they provide some prime examples of the inadequacies of FPTP when it comes to local democracy in England, particularly as almost all wards in London are represented by more than one councillor.

In 2018, London saw elections across 632 council wards of various sizes:

  • Four (<1%) single member wards
  • Fifty-five (9%) two member wards
  • Five hundred and seventy-three (91%) three member wards

Of these 628 multi-member wards, electing either two or three councillors, 565 saw one party win all of the seats up for grabs. This means that 90% of all the multi-member wards in London were represented by only one party after the last set of local elections in 2018. This widespread domination by one party at ward level, inevitably translates into some highly disproportional results at council level.

This contrasts starkly with the situation in Scotland, where no single party has ever won all the seats in an STV multi-member ward. Independent candidates have sometimes won all available seats but never a single political party. These much more representative ward-level outcomes meant that after the last set of Scottish local elections in 2017, no one party had a majority on any council in the country, though Independent candidates made up a majority of councillors in three authorities.

The rest of this paper focuses on three examples from the 2018 London local elections, highlighting disproportional outcomes at ward and council level, and contrasts these with what occurred in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, at the 2017 Scottish local elections.

Case Studies

Party Votes Vote % Seats Seat %
Labour 26295 24.5 8 13.3
Conservative 47777 44.6 50 83.3
Liberal Democrats 15896 14.8 0 0.0
Green Party 11460 10.7 0 0.0
Independents 2013 1.9 2 3.3
UKIP 3065 2.9 0 0.0
Others 642 0.6 0 0.0
TOTAL 107148 100.0 60 100.0

The above data highlight the disproportional nature of the 2018 local election outcome in Bromley. Despite a vote share below 50%[i], the Conservatives received over four-fifths of council seats, leaving all other parties badly under-represented.

The Bromley ward level data, below, shows how every ward in the borough saw candidates from only one party elected. This left thousands of supporters of other parties in each ward unrepresented. Across the borough, over half (51.4%) of votes went to parties that had no representatives elected in that ward.

Ward level results

WARD COUNCILLORS ELECTED VOTES FOR BEST PLACED CANDIDATE OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES VOTES FOR BEST PLACED CANDIDATE OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES (%)
Bickley 2774 48.6
Biggin Hill IND x2 2072 63.8
Bromley Common & Keston CON x3 2153 43.6
Bromley Town CON x3 3759 63.8
Chelsfield & Pratts Bottom CON x3 2345 44.5
Chislehurst CON x3 2150 41.0
Clock House LAB x3 4343 72.0
Copers Cope CON x3 3893 63.0
Cray Valley East CON x3 2399 59.7
Cray Valley West CON x3 3104 67.9
Crystal Palace LAB x2 1505 43.1
Darwin CON x1 448 27.2
Farnborough & Crofton CON x3 2485 43.1
Hayes & Coney Hall CON x3 2565 45.3
Kelsey & Eden Park CON x3 3205 55.6
Mottingham & Chislehurst North CON x2 1380 55.4
Orpington CON x3 2130 42.7
Penge & Cator ⬤⬤⬤ LAB x3 2606 44.4
Petts Wood & Knoll CON x3 2233 39.5
Plaistow & Sundridge CON x3 3521 63.9
Shortlands  CON x2 1423 40.6
West Wickham CON x3 2634 46.2
OVERALL 55127 51.4

 

Party Votes Vote % Seats Seat %
Labour 37835 51.5 51 85
Conservative 20270 27.6 9 15
Liberal Democrats 7208 9.8 0 0
Green Party 6344 8.6 0 0
Independents 1288 1.8 0 0
Others 455 0.6 0 0
TOTAL 73400 100 60 100

In Hounslow, the winning party, Labour, received a similar seat share (85%) as the Conservatives did in Bromley, this time with just over half the vote share.

The ward level data is also almost a mirror image of Bromley. Again, every multi-member ward is represented by only one party, with 46.8% of votes going to parties that did not succeed in having a representative elected in a particular ward.

WARD COUNCILLORS ELECTED VOTES FOR BEST PLACED CANDIDATE OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES VOTES FOR BEST PLACED CANDIDATE OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES (%)
Bedfont LAB x3 1730 51.1
Brentford LAB x3 1982 46.1
Chiswick Homefields CON x3 2327 57.3
Chiswick Riverside CON x3 2463 59.1
Cranford LAB x3 1105 34.3
Feltham North LAB x3 1872 56.1
Feltham West LAB x3 1935 51.0
Hanworth Park LAB x3 2177 62.3
Hanworth LAB x3 1547 50.4
Heston Central LAB x3 1077 34.5
Heston East LAB x3 1046 34.9
Heston West LAB x3 874 26.0
Hounslow Central LAB x3 1629 40.4
Hounslow Heath LAB x3 1414 36.8
Hounslow South LAB x3 1936 47.1
Hounslow West LAB x3 1275 36.6
Isleworth LAB x3 1863 49.3
Osterley & Spring Grove LAB x3 1998 47.6
Syon LAB x3 1962 50.0
Turnham Green CON x3 2111 56.7
OVERALL 34323 46.8

 

Party Votes Vote % Seats Seats %
Labour 6949 11.7 0 0.0
Conservative 17478 29.5 9 18.8
Liberal Democrats 28989 48.9 39 81.3
Green Party 2641 4.5 0 0.0
Independent 2863 4.8 0 0.0
UKIP 267 0.5 0 0.0
Others 82 0.1 0 0.0
TOTAL 59269 100.0 48

Kingston upon Thames is another example of one party getting over four-fifths of the seats, based on around half of the votes. In this borough it is the Liberal Democrats that benefit.

At ward level, although there are two wards with split representation, the vast majority of these multi-member wards are again represented by one party, meaning that over forty percent of votes went to parties who did not secure representation in a ward.

Ward level results

WARD COUNCILLORS ELECTED VOTES FOR BEST PLACED CANDIDATE OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES VOTES FOR BEST PLACED CANDIDATE OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES (%)
Alexandra LIB DEM x3 1640 45.0
Berrylands LIB DEM x3 1767 46.2
Beverley LIB DEM x3 2139 51.9
Canbury LIB DEM x3 2847 56.1
Chessington North & Hook LIB DEM x3 1554 47.6
Chessington South LIB DEM x3 1719 47.0
Coombe Hill CON x3 1686 53.7
Coombe Vale LIB DEM x2; CON x1 809 18.6
Grove LIB DEM x3 1546 43.5
Norbiton LIB DEM x3 1523 44.4
Old Malden CON x3 1912 57.9
St James LIB DEM x3 1926 52.8
St Mark’s LIB DEM x3 1382 41.7
Surbiton Hill LIB DEM x3 1504 39.7
Tolworth & Hook Rise LIB DEM x3 1319 38.8
Tudor CON x2; LIB DEM x1 694 18.5
OVERALL 25967 43.8

 

First preference votes

Party Votes Vote % Seats Seat %
SNP 49798 27.0 19 30.2
Conservative 51212 27.7 18 28.6
Labour 33916 18.4 12 19.0
Green Party 22907 12.4 8 12.7
Liberal Democrats 25154 13.6 6 9.5
Independents 1239 0.7 0 0.0
Others 401 0.2 0 0.0
TOTAL 184627 100.0 63 100.0

The data for Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, are in stark contrast to the three London borough examples. These data are from the last Scottish council elections in 2017 and the chart above shows a highly proportional result, with first preference vote shares closely matching seat share. As described above, STV gives voters the opportunity to select multiple preferences, so first preference vote share is not the only consideration when looking at the ‘fairness’ of an election outcome under STV. This at least partly explains why parties can sometimes get slightly more seats than another party while having slightly fewer first preference votes, as happened twice in Edinburgh in 2017. However, the fact that first preference vote share and seat share match so closely indicates a far more representative outcome for voters than we saw in London.

The Edinburgh ward level data again contrasts with the London examples. In no ward were all of the seats taken by one party, in fact in some wards four different parties saw candidates elected. The overall percentage of first preference votes  for parties with no representation in a ward was 15.7%, much lower than the percentage of votes for the ‘top candidate’ of parties who failed to get elected in particular wards, in the three London boroughs.

WARD COUNCILLORS ELECTED FIRST PREFERENCE VOTES FOR CANDIDATES OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES FIRST PREFERENCE VOTES FOR CANDIDATES OF NON-REPRESENTED PARTIES (%)
Almond ⬤⬤ SNP; CON; LD x2 1384 9.7
Pentlands Hill ⬤⬤ SNP; CON x2; LAB 1049 9.3
Drum Brae/Gyle SNP; CON; LD 1673 17.7
Forth ⬤⬤ SNP x2; CON; LAB; 2036 19.6
Inverleith ⬤⬤ SNP; CON x2; LD 3736 27.5
Corstorphine/Murrayfield SNP; CON; LD 1634 14.3
Sighthill/Gorgie ⬤⬤ SNP x2; CON; LAB 1623 19.1
Colinton/Fairmilehead ⬤⬤ CON x2; LAB 3374 29.7
Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart SNP; CON; GREEN 1789 19.6
Morningside CON; LAB; GREEN; LD 2427 17.9
City Centre SNP; CON; LAB; GREEN 754 8.5
Leith Walk ⬤⬤ SNP x2; LAB; GREEN 2487 23.4
Leith SNP; LAB; GREEN 1616 21.2
Craigentinny/Duddingston SNP; CON; LAB; GREEN 448 4.2
Southside/Newington SNP; CON; LAB; GREEN 1410 12.1
Liberton/Gilmerton ⬤⬤ SNP x2; CON; LAB 1254 10.7
Portobello/Graigmillar SNP; CON; LAB; GREEN 258 2.5
OVERALL 28952 15.7

 

[i] For multi-member London ward and overall council results, we have calculated vote share by using the vote of each party’s best-placed candidate. This is the approach taken by local election experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of the Election Centre, a major resource for local election data in the UK.

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