Local elections: How voters in England were cheated by a broken voting system

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 30th July 2019

Local democracy in England and Wales has long been under strain – with contests often seeing dismally low turnout, or indeed no contest taking place at all. But new research from the ERS adds fresh cause for concern.

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

In analysis published to mark this week’s 15 year anniversary of the introduction of proportional representation for Scottish local elections, we’ve highlighted 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.

Yet in the Scottish local elections in 2017 – conducted using the fairer Single Transferable Vote system – no council saw a party get more than half the seats with fewer than half the first preference votes. In other words, you only get a majority if you have majority support.

There are many other benefits to proportional representation. In many cases under First Past the Post, single-seat wards become ‘no go’ areas for other parties: the same person gets in every time, even in other parties have significant levels of support. That creates an incentive for parties to ignore areas all together and focus on ‘winnable’ seats. Voters lose out, denied a real choice.

In 2003, at the last Scottish local elections held under First Past the Post, 61 wards (5% of the total) were totally uncontested: there was only one candidate running.

In 2017 – having switched to proportional representation – there were just three uncontested wards in the whole of Scotland. Compare that with the broken winner-takes-all system in Wales where in 2017, 10.4% of Welsh council wards were uncontested.

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.

As ERS Director of Research Dr Jess Garland noted, our analysis 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 undemocratic 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 individual contests, this can lead to some parties being drastically over- or under-represented.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, voters can rank candidates by preference, and ‘surplus’ votes (which would be ignored under FPTP) are redistributed according to voters’ other 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 ERS’ full audit of the English local elections in 2019 will be published in August. Can you help fund our research to make the case for a truly democratic voting system?

With thanks to Democracy Club for their elections data. Full local council election results are available through Democracy Club’s Candidate Database.

Sign our petition for a fair voting system for local elections in England and Wales

Enjoy this blog? Sign up for more from the Electoral Reform Society

  • If you already receive emails from us, you don't need to complete this form
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Read more posts...