Why 32,000 people will be denied a vote in May

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 10th April 2013

On Thursday 6 May, 27 county councils and 8 unitary authorities in England and Anglesey in Wales will hold elections. Sadly, they give us yet another example of the woeful state of local government.

The Electoral Reform Society is determined to lead the debate on how we build a better local democracy in Britain. The reality is that much of what occurs at local authority level impacts on the day-to-day lives of tens of millions of people. Their activities are therefore important.

Let’s take just one element of what makes a good local democracy – the way representatives are elected.

We’re been looking through the list of nominees for all the council seats as they are being released.

All the usual problems with the First Past the Post voting system are there for all to see.

This morning I did an interview with the BBC about the situation in Wiltshire. So let’s consider what’s happening there.

Apart from the fact that the majority of voters who do not support the dominant party in Wiltshire (the Conservatives) will not see fair representation of their vote, there’s a group of people who are even worse off.

That’s the 32,000 people who don’t get a vote at all. That’s right, an election with no vote. They don’t have to wait until May to find out who their councillor will be – we know now.

FPTP produces many Uncontested Seats, where there is only one candidate. These fiefdoms are strongly defended by parties who manage to engineer them, but what about the voters? The idea that 100% of those 32,000 people support one party is laughable. But small, single member wards often lead people to think ‘why bother’ when a dominant party is guaranteed to win, regardless of whether they have a majority of the vote or not.

There’s fair criticism to be made of the other parties for not standing, particularly Labour who are meant to be pursuing a One Nation approach to politics. The fact that they and the Liberal Democrats aren’t even going through the motions of putting up paper candidates speaks volumes about how politically rotten these boroughs have become.

Every vote must have value if we are to build a better local democracy. In the case of Wiltshire, the dominant party enjoys 45.3% of the vote, but wins nearly two thirds of the seats. That’s despite almost 55% of the community voting for other parties. There are similar examples to this in Labour and Liberal Democrat strongholds – it’s not particular to one party.

Thankfully there is a solution to these problems!

Scotland has now successfully held two rounds of local elections using a fairer voting system – and the results stand in stark contrast to what we are seeing in England and Wales. Using the Single Transferable Vote has abolished the phenomenon of Uncontested Seats (down from 61 wards in the last FPTP election to zero in the two STV elections). Voters get more candidates to choose from and they have significantly increased the chances of someone they vote for getting elected.

It’s only one piece in the puzzle of building a better local democracy. But the advent of the county council elections serve as a timely reminder that a change in the voting system can lead to a change in the way politics is done at community level.

You can find out more about the difference STV has made in Scottish Local Elections here

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