Voters’ views warped across England and Wales as First Past the Post holds back elections

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 6th May 2022

Elections happened across the UK yesterday, with polls in Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections for all of Scotland and Wales plus large parts of England.

Voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland used fair, proportional electoral systems to elect their representatives, but England and Wales’ the distorting winner-takes-all voting system left many voters without a voice.

The First Past the Post system used in England and Wales means councils often bear little relation to how people voted. It can take parties that are supported by a minority of the vote and propel them into a big majority.

It can take a slight majority and turn it into a crushing landslide.

Or a near one-party state.

Behind these figures are millions of voters being ignored, often election after election. It’s no surprise that councils dominated by one party lack scrutiny – council budgets passed by chambers dominated by the same party that wrote them, scrutiny committees full of the friends of the people being scrutinised.

Research in 2015 estimated that ‘one-party councils’ could be missing out on savings of around £2.6bn nationally when compared to their more competitive counterparts – most likely due to a lack of scrutiny. £2.6bn is a lot of potential extra cash for our struggling authorities.

A broken system

How does it happen? Under First Past the Post, all votes not cast for the one (or multiple) winners in each ward go to waste. Spread across a whole council area, parties can often secure 30%+ of the vote and still be left with zero representation.

The flip side is that one party can sweep up nearly all the seats with just a third or half the vote. These one-party-takes-all outcomes are a deadweight on our democracy, with voters feeling silenced or taken for granted. When a party can get near 100% representation on a fraction of the vote, something is clearly wrong.

No party should sweep the board on a minority of the vote. It’s a recipe for poor representation, disengagement, and a growing divide between communities and their councils. It’s got so bad that some councillors get re-elected automatically, as  nobody stands against them – 6% of council seats in Wales, representing over 100,00 people were decided this way.

Decades of experience with a system that works

Uncontested seats used to be a major problem in Scottish local elections before they abandoned First Past the Post. Scotland’s last first past the post council elections saw 61 councillors ‘elected’ unopposed – this year saw just 18.

Both Scotland and Northern Ireland use a fairer voting system, the Single Transferable Vote, that makes rotten boroughs a thing of the past. Wales has passed legislation to let local communities scrap FPTP.

Proportional representation is vital to breathe new life and energy into our local democracy. For voters to know that they can vote for who they want, and the vast majority can expect to be represented by someone they voted for.

We need to ramp up the pressure and say enough is enough: voters in England need a real voice, and fair representation.

Sign and share our petition for proportional representation on England’s councils.

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