Hefyd ar gael yn: Cymraeg

Why councillors in Wales should back STV

Posted on the 9th March 2022

Why now?

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 seeks to revitalise democracy at council level. One of the provisions enables local authorities to have the choice between maintaining the First Past The Post (FPTP) system for council elections or adopting the fairer, Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system.

Following the May 2022 elections, councils will be able to vote to move to STV if a two thirds majority of the council agrees a resolution by 15th November three years before the next election.

The decision, of course, will be up to the elected councillors, but we believe this move would be ground-breaking. It could change our democracy and change it for the better. We urge councillors to back a fairer voting system and move to STV – here’s why.

Where are we now?

We have a 19th century voting system in 21st century Wales. It’s very clear that the way we elect our local councils, Westminster’s FPTP system, is no longer fit for purpose.

While some parties get many more seats than could be justified by their share of the vote in FPTP elections, many others get fewer seats than their vote share entitles them to. Parties that benefit in one area, will lose out in another.

With FPTP, candidates only need one more vote than the person in second place to win, even if the majority of people don’t favour that candidate. With STV the majority of people have their voices heard when electing their preferred candidates.

In the 2017 local elections in Wales, turnout was just 42% and there were 92 wards where there was no contested election. In one ward in Powys, nobody stood for election. FPTP helps perpetuate this lack of voter choice. Moving to an STV voting system ensures that every vote cast counts, invigorating local democracy and empowering the electorate.

The diversity of those elected was also extremely poor. Is local democracy thriving when only 28% of councillors in Wales are women and following the election in 2017 two of our 22 local authorities had no women at all in their cabinets?

The Single Transferable Vote

What is STV?

The Single Transferable Vote is an electoral system that puts the power in the hands of the voters. Evidence from Scotland and Ireland suggests voters use it in quite sophisticated ways.

Rather than one person representing everyone in a small area, like the current single-ward system seen in some local councils, bigger areas elect a small team of representatives. In Scotland, this ranges from 3 – 4 councillors per ward. Some wards in Wales already operate on a multi-member system, albeit using FPTP instead of STV to elect councillors.

On election day, voters number a list of candidates. Their favourite as number one, their second favourite number two, and so on. Voters can put numbers next to as many or as few candidates as they like. Parties will often stand more than one candidate in each area.

The numbers tell the people counting how to reallocate votes if the favoured candidate has enough votes already or stands no chance of winning.

With FPTP, in many areas electors know that their favoured party or candidate has no chance of winning. They, therefore, ‘hold their nose’ and vote tactically for someone they dislike the least. With STV, a voter can safely give their first preference vote to their favourite candidate because the vote will be transferred if that candidate cannot win.

How has STV worked in Scotland?

STV has been used in Scotland for all council elections in 2007, 2012 and 2017. Since then, there is strong evidence to demonstrate the positive contribution the system has made towards the quality of local democracy. There have only been three uncontested seats in Scotland since 2007 and the days of a single party controlling the council when they don’t have majority public support are over.

In Scotland, the proportionality of results improved dramatically between the last local election held under FPTP in 2003 and the first local election held under STV in 2007. Deviation from proportionality (DV score) is a commonly used method to compare the proportionality of results between different elections, the higher the score the more disproportionate the results. In 2003, the Scottish local elections produced results with a median DV score of 20.9, whereas in 2007 the median DV score of the election results was 10.4, a considerable reduction indicating that elected councillors were much more reflective of votes cast than under FPTP.

In fact, the amount of people who get their first choice elected has gone up by 50% since Scotland introduced STV. That’s 50% more voters who can go to a councillor they helped elect.

Research has shown that, in England, councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6bn a year through a lack of scrutiny of their procurement processes.

The new system has also encouraged parties to reach out to voters they would previously have ignored. As shown by the increased number of candidates standing in Scottish local elections since the introduction of STV – the average number of candidates per ward in 2003 (under FPTP) was 3.4 whereas this average increased to 7.4 in 2007 (under STV). This increase in voter choice under STV has been sustained across subsequent local elections with an average of 7.3 candidates per ward in 2017 with 2,572 candidates contesting seats in 354 multi-member wards.

Campaigning under STV

As the Single Transferable vote isn’t a one-person takes all system, it can crack open wards that previously parties stood no chance in. This can help create wider representation across a local authority, rather than just councillors coming from one geographical area where the party is strong.

More councillors mean a more active activist base, and can build the groundswell needed to eventually win MSs and MPs.

One of the biggest differences for political parties under a different voting system is that parties need to campaign slightly differently.

Under First Past the Post elections we see parties pouring the majority of their resources into seats they already hold or hope to gain. This means that potential supporters outside traditional heartlands and target wards are being neglected, they see little party presence due to a lack of campaigning in the area and in the worst case scenario offered no opportunity to vote for the party at all.

In terms of how parties campaign differently under STV, one of the biggest differences is that smaller parties have the chance of securing representation in proportion to their share of the vote, enhancing their willingness to contest seats. Two-horse races and safe seats are virtually eliminated, meaning that all parties have an incentive to campaign as best as they can to secure one or more seats. Both of these contribute to ensuring that elected representatives fairly reflect the diversity of opinion in an area and that voters are engaged in an active and informative contest. Energetic, imaginative campaigning and a popular message will also be good both for the individual candidate and the party.

Another aspect of campaigning that would require change would be towards information gathering.

On top of familiar campaigning issues (such as local issues and general pattern of support), parties will need to pay attention to the following considerations when deciding on their campaign strategy and, in particular, how many candidates to stand:

  • How many people are strong supporters of the party?
  • How many people might vote for one of the party’s candidates because of personal or other factors?
  • How is support for the party, and for individual candidates, distributed throughout the area?
  • Are supporters of other candidates and parties prepared to give your candidates transfers? If so, which candidate is most attractive to transfers?

For more information on how campaigning would change under STV, a pamphlet was developed for the changes in Scotland in 2007.


Is STV confusing for voters?

STV is simple for voters in that they only need to rank, in order of preference, as many candidates as they desire. The argument that STV is too complex for the electorate and FPTP is simpler and easier does not take into account that the ‘simplicity’ of FPTP is a false one. In reality many voters vote tactically under FPTP systems, 32 per cent said they were voting tactically in the 2019 General Election, making the decision on who to vote for a complex balancing act. In contrast, under an STV system voters are free to allocate their first preference vote to their true first preference candidate, safe in the knowledge that their subsequent preferences will be taken into account if their first choice is eliminated.

In the 2007 Scottish Local elections, the first to be held under STV, the percentage of spoilt ballots papers was significantly lower than for the Scottish Parliament elections held on the same day, showing that not only did voters adapt well to the new system but that it proved no more, and arguably less, complex than the AMS system currently in use. In truth, the complex bit of an STV system is counting the votes, which does not affect the voters themselves and digital solutions can aid the counting of these votes.

In Wales, we already have three different electoral systems for local, Senedd and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. The electorate is therefore used to following different practises for different ballot papers. Any changes would need to be accompanied by a large-scale and effective communications campaign which would clarify what system is being used in any given local authority and how to vote.

Would STV be beneficial for extreme parties?

STV is no more beneficial to extreme parties than FPTP. In fact, FPTP systems, which allow seats to be won on a minority of votes are more likely to provide unearned benefits to these parties.

Under FPTP:

  1. Parties, including extreme parties, can win control of councils without the backing of the majority of local voters. A situation that is much less likely under STV.
  2. The perception of ‘weak opposition’ due to safe seats can lead to the rise of extreme parties due to voter disaffection.

In Scotland, under STV, local government elections have experienced much less trouble from extreme organisations capitalising on anti-politics and local grievances than they have in England. There have been no equivalents to the English Democrats’ 2009 win in Doncaster or the rise of the British National Party (BNP) in Burnley in the early 2000’s.

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