A year from today, November 15, 2024, is the last day before the next election where your councillors can decide to bring local democracy into the 21st century.
I am talking about how councillors are elected. There’s a choice to be made, with councillors now able to vote to change the electoral system for their local authority. The sad thing about this is that they almost definitely won’t. So, should we stick with the system we have now, or twist to a much fairer one?
It’s a system from the middle of the last century, more about winning at all costs, where voices and nuance are lost. If you live in a ‘safe’ ward parties won’t work as hard to try to woo you because the win is already in the bag. It’s common for parties to run councils with more than half the seats but less than half the votes.
For example, at the last election, Labour took almost 70% of the seats in Cardiff Council with just 47% of the vote, giving it overall control without a majority of the votes. It was a similar situation in Ynys Môn, where Plaid took 60% of the seats with 41% of the vote.
This damaging cycle can also be seen through the high levels of uncontested seats in local elections. These are seats where the number of candidates standing is the same or fewer than the seats available, meaning voters are robbed of any choice at the ballot box. In 2022, a staggering 41% of the seats in Gwynedd Council were uncontested, meaning there was essentially no real contest for over 30,000 voters.
This is not a healthy path for our local democracy to be on, and it is one we don’t have to settle for.
The alternative is a form of proportional representation called the Single Transferable Vote (STV).
Put simply, it’s a fairer way of electing people, where if a party gets 33% of the votes, more often than not they will get a third of the seats in county or city hall and one would hope a third of a say on all decisions. It’s a way of electing candidates where more people have a say in who becomes their councillor and, put simply, it’s as easy as 1-2-3.
You see, instead of an X in a box, in STV you rank the candidates. Your favourite person gets a 1, your second gets a 2 and so on for as many candidates as you like. What if you don’t like what the others are saying at all? Well, you don’t need to give them a number. It’s a system that rewards candidates for knocking doors, for working hard and it makes them work harder. The system we have now is all black and white and life isn’t like that and neither should be our democracy.
STV is a tried and tested system and already in use in Scotland as well as Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The move to STV sounds like a small technical change, but what it means is that the makeup of council chambers would be far more representative of the way voters in their area voted and, in turn, would be more responsive to local needs. It would make our local governments fairer and more democratic for all.
Your Councillors have the power to change the system
The crazy situation we are in right now is that the decision to change the way our councillors are elected isn’t down to you, it’s down to councillors. So, in essence, we are asking people to change the way they are elected from the system that they know well and got them elected.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an attack on our councils or councillors. It can be a thankless task, but our local representatives are the heartblood of our democracy. They live and breathe their local communities. They are the ‘go to’ people when things go wrong, and often the forgotten reasons why things go right. When it comes to reform, we need to consider options to better support our councillors but the way they are elected has to change.
Sadly, many councils have shut that door on the choice without even asking you, the people they seek to represent. At ERS Cymru, we want every council in Wales to be elected using STV because we fundamentally believe it will benefit our communities. We also believe that at the very least people should be told what the options for changing systems are and then asked for their opinions.
Contact your Councillors and demand change
It’s not too late. Get in touch with your councillor or councillors and tell them that you think local democracy is important, that the way they are elected is important and that the council chamber that decides on how vital services are delivered should better reflect the views of the people it seeks to represent.
We have a year to change the way local politics is done in Wales and, like with everything good about democracy, it all begins with you, the voter.
This article was originally printed in the Western Mail on the 15th of November.
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