Local government is one of our most important layers of representation, delivering everyday frontline services such as social care and waste collection. Yet, for many people local government doesn’t feel that representative and that’s because in many places it isn’t.
Elections in England and Wales are held using a disproportionate First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system. This winner takes all system leads to huge gaps between vote share and seat share. You end up with councils dominated by one party elected with less than a majority of the vote. It often leads to high numbers of uncontested seats and a frustrating ‘safe seats’ culture where parties hold certain areas with little to no competition.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In Scotland, local elections are held using the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a fairer, more proportional system that doesn’t suffer from many of the problems of FPTP and has been found to deliver significantly fairer outcomes.
Our local authorities also often fail to reflect the population they represent. In the last elections in Wales just 28% of councillors elected were women. We also know there are significant issues with diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability and socio-economic background.
Our broken system means, despite councils being responsible for so many of the services and decisions that impact their daily lives, voters often choose to shun council elections opting not to take part in electing their local councillors with turnout at the 2018 English local elections at 35%.
This leaves local government in England and Wales ripe for reform, and it’s Wales who is leading the way in reforming local democracy to make it more representative and responsive to the people it serves.
Local councils could win right to scrap First Past the Post
The Welsh Parliament will be voting this Wednesday (18th November) on whether to pass the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, a significant piece of legislation which aims to transform local democracy in Wales.
The Bill seeks to address systemic issues with the voting system by giving councils the opportunity to move to STV using an opt-in system similar to that used in New Zealand. This is the first piece of legislation bringing STV to Wales and represents a significant step forward, which we hope councils will seek to adopt. Moving to an STV system would deliver more proportional results and mean that everyone’s vote counts. It would reduce uncontested seats, encourage diversity among candidates and encourage voter engagement and see more people having their voices heard at a local level.
There would also be changes to who can vote in local elections in Wales, with the franchise being extended to 16 and 17 year olds and all foreign citizens living legally in Wales. It would bring the local elections in line with the Welsh Parliament elections, which take place in May next year ensuring greater participation in more levels of Welsh democracy than ever before.
Automatic voter registration for Wales?
The Bill could also lead to welcome improvements to the voter registration process in Wales laying the path to a new system of Automatic Voter Registration. While needing a separate order to come into force, this would allow for the registration of local government electors without application where the electoral registration officer is satisfied that they have reliable information that an individual is eligible for registration.
Further measures in the Bill also include very welcome changes around diversity, including job sharing for cabinet roles, and a duty on local authorities to publish plans to increase participation. The Bill also allows for pilots of innovative new electoral arrangements, such as voting on different days and mobile voting, to be trialled.
If delivered effectively and embraced by local authorities this legislation could revolutionise how local democracy works in Wales and represents a different way for how local government could work across in the UK. Rather than putting up barriers to participation, this legislation encourages it.
Wales is leading the way on reforming the way local democracy can work to ensure that even at the most local level, our democracy is fair and representative. These changes in Wales set a blueprint for the rest of the UK, Now it is England’s turn to follow.
The ERS Cymru team have been working for years on making the case for STV in local government in Wales. You can support their vital work by becoming a member of the ERS.
Join the ERS today