In 2007 Scotland began using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for local government elections. The First Past the Post system – once used for all public elections in mainland Britain – was consigned to history.
May 2012 marked the second outing for the system, and the first since elections to the Scottish Parliament were ‘decoupled’.
Today we launch our report into that election. We have sought to understand what that change has meant for Scotland’s voters, to see how the public and the parties have adapted, and if expectations – of both supporters and critics alike – have been borne out.
The first STV vote clearly saw massive changes in how elections and local democracy worked in Scotland.
Voter choice more than doubled, uncontested seats became a thing of the past, and the rotten boroughs that once plagued Scotland were undone.
2012 has shown modest, but measurable improvements. What we are witnessing is evidence that both voters and parties are becoming more adept at making the most of the possibilities presented by STV. We are seeing a new system bedding in.
But, as expected, the first local elections since decoupling did see a dramatic drop in voter participation. Turnout in this election was 39.1% – a 14% drop from the last election. That figure may remain head and shoulders above the 31% that turned out in English authorities that year, but that will be of little comfort to anyone with concerns about the health of our democracy.
STV in Scotland has not been a silver bullet for all the ills of local government. Only modest gains on gender balance mean councils will remain “male, pale, and stale” until we see real progress from parties on candidate selection.
Yes, more action is needed but the system is ensuring that more voices are being heard on more councils than ever before.
There are clearly lessons for those in England and Wales who believe their local democracy can and should be better.
2012 Scottish Local Government Elections, 3 May 2012, Report & Analysis, by Professor John Curtice is available for download