Why England needs the Single Transferable Vote

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 7th April 2022

In May 2022, local elections will take place throughout Scotland and Wales, as well as in many parts of England, including the election of all local councillors in Greater London.

In Scotland, these will be the fourth set of local elections held using the Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV has long been the ERS’ preferred system of proportional representation as it puts power in voters’ hands and allows them to make nuanced choices, not just between parties but often between candidates of the same party. It is a straightforward system for voters to use, they simply rank candidates in their order of preference – 1,2,3 etc. Voters can give their first preference to their favourite candidate, safe in the knowledge their vote will not be ‘wasted’ even if their first choice is not elected, as they can still have a say in the outcome via their latter preferences.

STV in Scotland sees councillors elected in multi-member wards of typically between three or four seats. These larger wards are designed to ensure that the diversity of opinion in an area is at least relatively well represented by those candidates who are elected – a far cry from the winner-takes-all system used in England. It is highly unusual, almost impossible, for candidates from the same party to secure all the seats in one of these STV multi-member wards, unless it is a genuine reflection of overwhelming support for one party above all others.

Example: STV in Action

Under STV, candidates need to achieve a set number of votes to be elected (the quota) and with three or four member wards, this quota is around 20-25% of votes.

In a four-member ward where candidates representing Party A receive 50% of first preference votes, candidates representing Party B receive 25% of first preference votes and candidates representing Party C receive 25% of first preference votes, it is almost certain that Party A will receive two seats, Party B will receive one seat and Party C will receive one seat.

Following the Senedd’s passing of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, Welsh local authorities will soon have the power to change from using First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) to STV for their local elections. ERS Cymru have been working closely with Welsh councils and councillors to encourage them to take this important step and back reform for their local communities.

In England, there has sadly been no progress towards the adoption of STV for local elections. This is something that urgently needs to change. FPTP often produces absurd results at the local level, we’ve seen time and time again one-party states, where parties receive upwards of three-quarters of seats, with barely half the support of voters in an area.

But a change could be easier than you think. Many council wards in England elect multiple members, so are perfectly set up to work with STV. Around 40% of English council seats up for election in 2022 are in Greater London and these London council wards provide an excellent example of the warping impact of FPTP on multi-member wards.

London’s problem of one-party dominance

In 2018, London saw elections across 629 wards throughout its 32 boroughs. Only four of these wards, less than one percent, were single member wards electing one councillor. Five hundred and sixty-nine wards, representing 90% of all London wards, saw three councillors elected, with the remaining 56 wards (9%) electing two councillors. Of these 625 multi-member wards, electing either two or three councillors, 563 saw one party win all of the seats up for grabs. This means that 90% of all the multi-member wards in London were represented by only one party, after the last set of local elections in 2018.

This contrasts starkly with the situation in Scotland, where such an outcome has never occurred in an STV multi-member ward. Independent candidates have sometimes won all the available seats but never a single political party.

In fact, if we look at the example ward from above, where candidates representing Party A receive 50% of votes, Party B receive 25% of votes and Party C receive 25% of votes. In a typical three-member London ward, under the current FPTP system, it would be highly likely that Party A would pick up all three seats, due to there being a large gap between the candidates of the first and second-placed parties – denying voters of Parties B and C representation and leaving half the votes wasted.

It is clear that STV is urgently needed to provide fair representation for voters in English local government. For too long England has lagged behind on the campaign for fairer votes – instead seeing the warping effects of FPTP in their local councils as well as in Westminster. Scotland are seeing the benefits of moving to a fairer system and now too Wales have the chance to throw FPTP on the scrap heap – surely now is the time for England to follow.

If you live in Greater London or any other area of England with local elections this year and want to show your support for our campaign for STV, download our free window poster.

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