Looking back at a decade of proportional representation for local elections in Scotland

Phil Connor, ERS Scotland Campaigns Officer

Posted on the 4th May 2020

It is now 13 years since Scotland abandoned First Past the Post for local government elections and adopted the Single Transferrable Vote form of proportional representation.

What many will have seen as a small shift in process has led to a sea-change in local politics, an end to ‘one party states’, and more power for voters.

Within the 13 years we have grown to understand what other countries like Ireland knew already: with fair votes comes better democracy.

I have only worked for ERS Scotland since 2016, but back in 2007 I was a volunteer for the Society, spending six months talking to voters about the new system, and attending an election count as an observer.

From what I saw on the ground, it took parties slightly longer than the electorate to realise that this change to the voting system also meant a whole new way of doing politics. Now every vote would count – and parties would act differently.

Since then, competitive local elections have helped to refresh local democracy across Scotland. I would still like to see more cooperation between parties at a council level, but within our multi-member wards, councillors generally have very good relations regardless of affiliation. Councils across Scotland have experienced power-sharing, with a wider range of parties working together in local government.

STV allows voters to not only express their preferences between parties but also within them, this means that councillors no longer have the option to be distant and unaccountable without consequences.

Solely changing the voting system has not been a cure-all: Scotland’s local government is still too centralised and top down. There are too few councillors, and Scotland has one of the lowest rates of local representation in Europe.

That’s why ERS Scotland has been playing a key role in the Democracy Matters consultation, through Our Democracy, the campaign for a truly powerful and participatory local democracy. There are still a few who miss the old way of doing things too – I’ve occasionally heard councillors complain that they have to work harder under the new system. But I have never once heard a voter make the same complaint!

Because of our increasingly long experience of proportional systems as a nation (13 years for local government and 21 years for Holyrood), when we now come to use Westminster’s one-person-takes-all system, it seems perverse and unwieldly.

Westminster-style voting systems are shown up as the blunt instrument they are – unable to turn a multitude of your hopes into a binary choice.

That’s why the people of Scotland are well placed to say to their English and Welsh neighbours that there is a better way of doing democracy, and we have the proof.

At the final set of council elections under the old First Past the Post system in 2003, 61 councillors were elected unopposed in Scotland, without a vote. It was simply not worth standing opposing candidates as the system made it so hard for voters to kick out the incumbents. But in the first proportional election of 2007 there was not one uncontested seat. Read more about PR in Scotland here.

Phil Connor is ERS Scotland’s Campaigns Officer, and wrote this piece on 9th April.

See also: A tale of two by-elections: How STV produces fairer outcomes

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