When getting the most votes isn’t enough – England’s 2018 local elections

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 9th May 2018

Last week’s local elections were a textbook lesson in why we need to change the way we elect our local councils. From the wrong party winning, to councils with zero scrutiny, using Westminster’s voting system to decide who controls council’s multi-million-pound budgets is a disaster waiting to happen.

But it doesn’t have to be like this in England. Just across the border in Scotland, local councils reflect how local residents vote. In Northern Ireland, local government has functioned perfectly well for decades with a democratic voting system.

Most of the councils up for election last week are elected in one of two ways, usually electing more than one councillor from each ward.

In the first, as is typical in the London boroughs, you have three councillors in a ward, three votes you can cast and the top three will be elected. Typically, voters will cast all three votes for one party’s candidates and hence three councillors of the same party will be returned.

This means that councils often do an even worse job reflecting how people vote than even Westminster. With three separate wards there is a chance that different parties’ candidates might win each one. With a single ward that elects three, typically, one parties’ candidates will get all.

Another way is elections by thirds, typically used in the urban North. These wards are once again multi-member except that one councillor is generally elected a year, with a fourth year with no election. Once again the same party tends to win all three, plus voters get tired of voting every single year which reduces turnout and engagement.

Both these statements were born out last Thursday.

For instance, three London boroughs, Barking and Dagenham, Lewisham and Newham are now 100% Labour councils with no opposition councillors whatsoever.

[bctt tweet=”Three London boroughs, Barking and Dagenham, Lewisham and Newham are now 100% Labour councils with no opposition councillors whatsoever.” username=”electoralreform”]

Even with a voting system that is famous for not respecting how people vote, you might expect that the vast majority of residents voted Labour. Perhaps 80%?

In Lewisham, for instance, only 52% voted Labour, with three other parties gaining more than 10% of the vote. The Greens (18.4%) the Conservatives (13.0%) and the Liberal Democrats (11.8%). While just over half of Lewisham residents wanted a Labour council, a substantial minority voted for other parties. Had a few percentage points been different, labour could have gained 100% of the seats on less than 50% of the vote.

Lewisham Council Elections 2018

But it was not just Labour who gained an advantage from disproportionate results. In the City of Westminster Council, the Conservatives won by a narrow margin in votes, 42.8% to 41.1%, but won 41 seats to 19 for Labour.

The politicians who benefit from Westminster’s voting system often argue that one of the advantages is that it produces clear winners for whoever wins the most votes. But in Wandsworth Labour won the most votes, 38.7%, and got 26 seats, while the Conservatives got 38.3%, but won 33. In Plymouth (elected by thirds) the Conservatives won the vote 44.9% to 44.2% but Labour won the most seats up for election, 11 to 8, seeing it take control of the council.

The results of Westminster style all-or-nothing elections can often be changed completely by a small number of voters. This is why parties fight hard in some wards and barely show up in others. A change of 141 votes in Wandsworth in the right wards would have seen a Labour administration elected for the first time since 1971.

[bctt tweet=”In Wandsworth Labour won the most votes, 38.7%, and got 26 seats, while the Conservatives got 38.3%, but won 33.” username=”electoralreform”]

Local councils are important – they have multi-million pound budgets, control major developments, trading standards, bin collections, social care, transport and so much more. According to research ‘one-party councils’ could be missing out on savings of around £2.6bn 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.

People should have the opportunity for their votes to truly count and to have vibrant councils as diverse as the communities they represent, with the power to hold their leaders to account.

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