Local government in Wales is all too often ‘pale, male and stale’ – uncontested seats are widespread and incumbent councillors are often favoured by the current First Past The Post system. We need electoral reform if we want local governments that reflect the diversity of the areas they serve and make sure everyone’s vote counts. That’s why we’re calling for major local government reform here in Wales.
The last elections in 2017 continued a pattern of a lack of representation in terms of both diversity and voter choice.
Just 28% of councillors elected in 2017 were women. Throughout 2017 and 2018 two local authorities had all-male cabinets.
Under a one-person-takes-all system, people found their votes weren’t being effectively represented. In Cardiff, Labour received 53% of seats with just 36% of the vote. In Conwy, the Conservatives took just 27% of seats despite securing 37% of the vote, while Plaid Cymru took 17% of seats with just 8% of the vote.
This all adds together to create a situation where there is a stark disconnect between voters and the councillors that represent them. Either because they are largely male, older and have often held seats for a number of years, or because people feel their votes haven’t counted and their voices haven’t been heard. At the last local elections turnout fell to just 42%.
Local authorities across Wales provide some of the basic services that enable a community to thrive. From ensuring transport to school, to delivering social services for elderly people, local government is at the very heart of how our lives are run. That’s why it must be responsive to voters’ views in a more direct way’
Fair results shouldn’t be optional
In terms of how to reform local elections in Wales, initial steps have been made in the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, which proposes a model of ‘permissive PR’ where individual councils can choose to move to using STV as the voting system for their elections.
We have major concerns that this will not be enough to address the democratic deficit within Welsh local government. It is likely that very few councils will opt to reform themselves, as their members quite clearly benefit from the unfair status quo of winner-takes-all results.
What we need to see is a full move to STV similar to what happened in Scotland, where STV has been used in local elections since 2007. Successive local elections there under a new system have shown an increased level of proportionality, far higher voter choice and voters getting quickly used to the system.
In terms of diversity, it’s time for progress. Councils are not currently representative of the diversity seen in their constituencies. We have long called for the introduction of quotas in local government. Given the difficulty in regulating independent candidates, this must start initially within the party structure with parties putting forward a much higher number of female candidates.
One of the major barriers to addressing a lack of diversity in local government in Wales is the paucity of accurate data around the demographics of candidates and those elected. We have long been calling on the UK Government to enact Section 106 of the Equality Act, but in the absence of that parties should commit to collecting and publishing their own data. The next Local Government Minister should commit to ensuring all Electoral Registration Officers collect this data as part of the registration process for candidates.
Mechanisms to support candidates from other groups less likely to be represented should also be introduced. The current Welsh Government has been working on introducing an Access to Elected Office Fund. We are keen to see this implemented and done so in a way that ensures it goes beyond the model used in England. This fund could provide access to elected office for people with a range of disabilities, people from BAME and LGBT communities, and those for whom financial barriers would normally stop them standing.
Manifesto ask 2: Further reform of local government to include the full rollout of STV for local elections in all authorities. Parties should also commit to decisive measures to promote diversity, such as gender quotas, collecting and publishing diversity data, and a far-reaching Access to Elected Office Fund to include support for people from a much wider set of backgrounds than current provisions. Quotas, in particular, are essential to ensure we do not continue to see low numbers of women elected in Local councils.
Image: Yerpo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons