The new rotten boroughs?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 21st May 2014

How would you like to live in a one party state? You may wonder why anyone would ask given that this is the UK, not North Korea.  After all, we can all vote tomorrow if we choose to (or nearly all, at least).

But rather worryingly, this question is more relevant than it might seem.

According to Electoral Reform Society projections, in tomorrow’s local elections it’s likely that another 16 local councils will become utterly dominated by one party. They would join the 99 authorities in England and Wales where one party already has a huge majority of councillors (over 75%).

This has obvious problems. A council without effective opposition can be more prone to complacency, poor governance and corruption. And opposition parties can struggle to recruit active members, making it harder to put forward candidates and campaign at election time.

Yet despite these problems, by the end of tomorrow over 19 million people in England and Wales could well live under a council where one party holds over 75% of the seats.

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What’s most shocking about these one party states is that voters don’t choose them. This sort of dominance is almost never a reflection of how people actually vote. For example, in Lewisham tomorrow Labour is projected to win over 90% of council seats, but only to be supported by around half of those who vote.

One party states are unrepresentative.

The solution is to change the voting system for local elections.

Scotland used to have four one party states. Nowadays, after changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in 2007, it has none. If England and Wales also changed from First Past the Post (the system Scotland used to have) to STV, the same could happen here.

And switching to STV would have other advantages too. The disgrace of uncontested seats (where only one party puts forward a candidate in an area – there are seven of these in this year’s local elections) would almost certainly disappear. Turnout could start rising as parties had to campaign more widely in the run up to the election. And independent candidates and smaller parties would stand a better chance of winning seats, giving voters more choice.

The case is compelling.

Politicians in England and Wales need to face up to the fact that our local electoral system is utterly broken. The current system is undermining them, damaging their parties – and most of all it’s unfair on voters. It’s time for a change.

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