Eastleigh shows why the Tories and Labour should now support PR in local elections

imageIf only, if only… Instead of holding out for a referendum on the Alternative Vote the Lib Dem negotiators had secured proportional representation for all local council elections instead.

Hindsight’s easy, I know. At the time of negotiating the Coalition Agreement, electoral reform at Westminster was the party’s deal-breaker. The Lib Dem vote had gone up by a million, our number of MPs down by five. The public were in favour, or so the polls said. It’s possible the party wouldn’t even have approved entering the Coalition if the Westminster voting system had been left untouched.

And yet, and yet… Proportional representation at a local council level would’ve been a far more transformational way of shifting the power dynamics in this country, of introducing genuine electoral competition into contests up and down the country. Eastleigh shows us how.

One lesson all parties appear agreed on is this: the Lib Dems’ local strength in Eastleigh – the only constituency in the country where one party controls every single district and county council seat – was crucial to the party’s victory in last week’s by-election. The Tories’ Platform 10 blog summarises why it matters so much:

Elections are not about the election time, they are about the infrastructure you have put in place in the previous years. The Lib Dems became and remained strong locally because they worked hard at a long-term plan. For a number of years the Council leader dictates that each Lib Dem councillor has to canvass two streets every weekend. This knowledge is retained so they know who their voters are and what the undecideds main concerns are. Such organisation allowed the Lib Dems to get almost half their voters to vote early, by post. Maria Hutchings was an enthusiastic local candidate but she had no infrastructure until the by-election was called, and by then it was too late. The Conservative’s lack of local intelligence led to incidents like Boris Johnson – a great campaigning asset – being sent blind into areas to canvass people who were never going to vote Conservative.

Eastleigh: a case study in gaming first-past-the-post

Let’s look at the results of Eastleigh’s council elections in May 2012. The Lib Dems won an astonishing 86.7% of the seats up for grabs (13 out of 15). Yet in not a single one of the wards which were contested did the Lib Dem vote exceed 50%. The Tories came second in all but one of them, polling up to 37% of the vote, but were left almost empty-handed.

In Eastleigh, the Lib Dems have succeeded, triumphantly so, in gaming the electoral system to the party’s advantage.

That works well for us, at least in this one seat. But it doesn’t work so well for the more-than-half the public which voted for parties other than the Lib Dems and saw their votes ignored by a winner-takes-all system.

Eastleigh is, of course, an exceptional seat for the Lib Dems. But its characteristics – one-party rule at council level with local MP of the same stripes – are far from exceptional. What inevitably then happens is, as both the Tories and Labour have found in Eastleigh, your local supporter base withers, and you find you cannot mount a winning challenge to the incumbent. Even when, as the Lib Dems were, they’re mired in the most unfavourable circumstances imaginable.

As a result of this process, of which Eastleigh is just one microcosm, the main three parties have begun to hunker down: retreating from areas they know they can’t win, focusing all their efforts instead on defending their fortresses with occasional incursions into near-by enemy territory.

How can we make politics competitive again?

Ballot paper

The result of the next election will hinge on some 120 seats, which will be roughly the same 120 as it hinged on last time. Tough luck if you’re a voter who lives in one of the 530 seats which aren’t competitive. You may as well sit out the next election, and the one after that.

Politics in the UK has become dead-locked, stuck. The parties know it, the voters know it. So it’s hardly surprising they’re looking for any other way, including Ukip, of disrupting that status quo.

I’m not pretending, by the way, that proportional representation at local level is some sort of panacea for the problems facing all three main parties. But what it would achieve is three things:

1) Give all parties a real incentive to fight for every vote, not just the votes in the marginal areas that ‘matter’;
2) Give all voters a reason to back their first choice party and know that their ballot will count;
3) Re-connect the parties and the voters: parties will have local elected representatives drawn from around the country; voters will be able to turn to the elected representative of their choice.

What next?

There is no prospect of electoral reform at national level, at least for the next decade. The public’s backing of first-past-the-post (or rejection of AV: whichever) was simply too overwhelming.

There is, though, a desperate need to re-inject some competitiveness into our electoral system. And there is every reason for both the Tories and Labour to force themselves out of their electoral comfort zones into parts of the country they normally write-off.

Eastleigh was a wake-up call to the Tories of what happens if your activist base is hollowed-out. But it was equally a warning to Labour of quite how far away it is from being a ‘One Nation’ party.

I’m sure there are Tory and Labour supporters who’ll continue to dismiss proportional representation as Lib Dem special interest pleading. They think it’s still possible to turn the clock back to the 1950s and simple two-party politics. It’s not going to happen: fragmentation is the new normal. Smart Tory and Labour supporters need to start thinking how to deal with this new reality, broadening their support, reaching out to all voters – not just your core support.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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27 Comments

  • David Evans 3rd Mar '13 - 2:42pm

    It is very easy to excuse the mess in the negotiations by saying Hindsight’s easy, the weakness in that argument is that some of us knew the problems right from the start. PR in local elections should have been a gimme, but instead our leading lights allowed the post election hubris of the negotiations to totally overestimate the value of what they were getting and underestimate the value of what we were giving.

    The problems of the last three years have largely been caused by the unending attempt to cover up those mistakes.

  • @ David Evans

    There is indeed total, 20/20 hindsight about the AV referendum. Who would have known how much the press and our opponents were going to scapegoat Nick Clegg and who could have predicted how low they were going to stoop in turning the referendum into a means of kicking him and our party?

    If we had abandoned the possibility of even the slightest degree of electoral reform for Westminster in favour of a change to local elections that would bring precious little short term benefit to the Lib Dems, how would party members have reacted? Very badly, is my view.

    However, this is all crying uselessly over spilt milk. In future, we have to decide that is most helpful to pushing forward the agenda of electoral reform. If at any point we are in the position to form a future coalition at Westminster, STV for local elections has to be the answer in opening up our political system. Once people have seen how it works on a local level, there will be no room for bogus arguments about “winning on the back of the BNP votes” or other such nonsense.

    FPTP is a dying system. We failed to finish it off in 2011, but it is becoming increasingly indefensible and we need to keep chipping away at its foundations until it finally collapses.

  • I have to ask: In an age of high-speed travel and even faster communications, when people often know their online friends better than their next-door neighbors, when people identify more with blocs with which they have common interests than with their geographical community, isn’t the whole concept of a geographically bounded constituency an anachronism? Maybe the problem with PR is that it simply doesn’t go far enough in reforming the system.

  • Julian Tisi 3rd Mar '13 - 5:10pm

    An excellent article and I agree completely with RC above.

    “The result of the next election will hinge on some 120 seats, which will be roughly the same 120 as it hinged on last time. Tough luck if you’re a voter who lives in one of the 530 seats which aren’t competitive. You may as well sit out the next election, and the one after that.” – This is the crux of the argument that over time should built support for a better system like STV. People don’t care about the lack of proportionality in an electoral system so much as they care about whether or not their vote matters. And for the majority it doesn’t. But sadly Stephen Tall is right – for now, there is no immediate prospect of electoral reform at national level. That’s why STV for local elections is so important as a campaigning issue for our party.

    There may even be a chance Labour and some Tories might be convincable re changing the voting system for local elections – Labour for example might think they had a chance to get a foothold in the South with PR? I just hope that our party doesn’t settle for some lesser system like AV or worst of all closed lists. STV in my opinion is by far the best of systems for the voter and we should push hard for it. And in the long term people will get used to it and it would become the default for any change in elections to Westminster.

  • Paul Holmes 3rd Mar '13 - 5:47pm

    ‘Who would have known how much the press and our opponents…………………………………….?’

    Anyone who has ever fought elections for any length of time? Anyone who was not starry eyed about the coalition being a meeting of minds? Anyone who knew that there was a great gulf -let alone a cigarette paper between us and the Tories? Anyone who has ever run a Coalition or majority Council? Anyone with experience of the Welsh and Scottish coalitions? Anyone with past experience of Labour Party short termism versus their supposed principles and policies?

    Regrettably none of these seem to have been involved/consulted over the strategy to be adopted for the AV campaign.

    But how could ANYONE, even think tank wonks, have seriously thought that that Cameron would honour some sort of unwritten agreement not to campaign hard against AV? Even if he personally had kept his alleged promise why would the rabid tory press or the Cons Party abandon their centuries old opposition to all such democratic reform (as with the elected second chamber too)?

  • The only advantage of FPTP over AV is that it is clear, for a party winning 10%+ of the national vote, which seats it needs the Tories to win to block a Labour majority, and vice versa, thus ‘ locking in’ a hung parliament. Under AV the required strategy for the LDs in seats where they were third would have not been so clear.

  • Didn’t Labour introduce PR in devolved parliaments and mayoral elections and the Scottish local elections are STV, which was introduced, I think, by the SNP but has cross party consensus?

    I don’t see why you have to keep on attacking Labour for not supporting PR, when they clearly do.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Mar '13 - 10:58pm

    g

    Didn’t Labour introduce PR in devolved parliaments and mayoral elections

    How can mayoral elections be proportional? A mayor is one person, one person cannot proportionally represent all opinions. The mayoral system is the extreme opposite of proportional representation – it’s about all representation going to just one individual.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Mar '13 - 11:30pm

    Stephen Tall

    There is no prospect of electoral reform at national level, at least for the next decade. The public’s backing of first-past-the-post (or rejection of AV: whichever) was simply too overwhelming

    As I keep saying, anyone who voted “No” in the referendum voted for THIS government. They voted for a system which distorted the representation of the Conservatives as the largest party upwards, and which distorted the representation of the Liberal Democrats as the third party downwards. No-one who voted “No” can say they didn’t realise what they were doing, because the “No” campaign put this distortion as the current system’s best aspect. This distortion unbalanced representation so that a Conservative-LibDem coalition was the only viable government, and unbalanced the representation of the two parties in that coalition in a way that made it overwhelmingly Conservative with just a little Liberal Democrat influence. Anyone who voted “No” in the referendum in effect voted “Yes” to the question “Do you want the current government with its Conservative domination?”. If the response to this is “No, no, people really understood the system, it was just a vote against AV, nothing else”, then it cannot be claimed it was a vote against proportional representation.

    However, to a large extent the “No” campaign ran as if it were a campaign against proportional representation. That is why we must push the line that the current coalition is NOT our ideal (contrary to Nick Clegg’s speech at the last party conference), far from being the sort of thing we want to see more of in the future, it is very much what we are campaigning AGAINST when we support proportional representation, we DON’T AGREE with the idea that there should be massive distortion in favour of the biggest party giving us the sort of unbalanced government we have right now.

    Many people voted “No” in the referendum because they were fooled into doing so by Labour proppers up of Tory hegemony. I think we should shame such people by point out again and again what they really did – by voting “No” they voted Tory. If they don’t want the sort of government we have now, they need to back electoral reform, not oppose it.

  • @ Jedibeeftrix

    “It is a perfectly good system for national elections to the Commons”

    The 2005 general election is cast iron proof that what you are saying is frankly beyond parody. What is “perfectly good” about a system that allows a party with 35% of the vote to govern completely on its own without listening to any other party’s views?

    FPTP is a disastrous system which leads to massive swings in government policy and the imposition of the views of minority on the majority. Anyone who flannels about “decisive government” is just indulging in transparent self justification because their own favoured party wins out in this system.

  • PR has one deficiency. It requires the participation of the public, and unless turnout is above 50% mandates are meaningless – which is why local councils are relatively weak and voters complain that the way things happen is a mystery and so impenetrable that’s it’s impossible to make a difference.

    A 50% turnout threshold is required for PR, but how this be enforced? Repeat the election every week until people are so annoyed that they’re forced to get involved?

    Isn’t that what’s called being quorate?

  • Tony Dawson 4th Mar '13 - 9:54am

    “a change to local elections that would bring precious little short term benefit to the Lib Dems, ”

    Eh?

    Eh?

    EH????

    Which Party are you a member of? “No short term benefit” ?

    PR for local elections would have guaranteed Lib Dem presence in scores of Local Authorities up and down the land (including some where they have been wiped out recently under FPTP) and would have ‘kept us honest’ by ensuring we always have a functioning opposition in those few places we dominate.

    Once this system had been in for a few years in local government, there would have been monstrous pressure from all over for change in the Westminster voting system.

  • Harry Hayfield 4th Mar '13 - 10:32am

    In Wales, the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with Labour between 2000 and 2003. During that coalition, the Richards Commission was born and when it reported in 2002 it recommended STV as the best system for local government in Wales. That idea was promptly dropped as soon as Labour got an overall majority in 2003. We had the chance to get it on the statute book in Wales in 2002 but failed. The lack of STV in Wales is no one’s fault but ours and now we are in no postition to get it on the books again.

  • Julian Tisi 4th Mar '13 - 1:17pm

    Peter Tyzack: I agree with you and I could have expressed myself better, We should be campaigning for internally to ensure that it goes into our policies and our manifesto. But on the doorstep it’s a very minor issue, I agree. However, in coalition negotiations I think PR isn’t enough. If we’re offered closed lists for example I think we should say no. We may get a short term advantage but it would damage the cause of reform. I’m not saying it’s STV or nothing – open lists for example might be acceptable, but I think we should push hard for STV.

    Oranjepan: Not sure where you read that you need 50% turnout in PR elections to be valid, but this is not the case. There would be no minumum thresholds required for turnout, as now.

  • Roberto Robles 4th Mar '13 - 5:14pm

    @g,

    PR was introduced in Scotland because the LibDems demanded it, as part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which laid the groundwork for devolution, which included Labour (but not the SNP, who didn’t want anything short of independence, and the Tories, who thought it would break up the union). It was reluctantly introduced by Labour in Wales, who thought they had to follow the Scottish example – this is why Wales is less proportional (i.e. more FPTP seats) than Scotland.

    STV was introduced for local elections in Scotland because the LibDems, as part of a coalition with Labour, demanded it. I believe it was about to be introduced for local elections in Wales also (as part of another Labour-LD coalition), but the Labour central government blocked it.

    I not only hope, but am convinced, that any potential Labour-LibDem coalition in Westminster will include STV at the local level. Most wards in England use 3-member wards anyway, so boundary review will not be necessary – instead of putting crosses, people will have to rank. As Ian says, London would be a great start, as all wards are 3-member and councils are wholly elected at once.

    As an example, in my borough of Haringey, Labour get 60% of seats with 40% of the vote, while Conservatives with 15% and Greens with 10% are completely left out. LibDems actually get their fair share though – 40% of seats with 35% of vote.

  • Steve Comer 4th Mar '13 - 9:41pm

    I agree PR for local government should be given a much higher priority in any future coalition negotiations, but it’ll be interesting to see how the other parties would react. Tories would benefit by getting a toehold on urban councils in the north, likewise Labour in parts of the south, BUT. It will be at the expense of breaking down their existing fiefdoms. In my experience the most reactionary Labour activists against constitutional reform are form the big northern cities, and the most pompous Tories from southern counties!
    One advantage of wanting change at Council level is that we are the most pro-local government party, whereas Tory and Labour MPs treat it with more disdain. There is no ‘turkey for xmas’ element about Mps voting for STV in local elections as there was AV for Parliament.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Mar '13 - 12:23am

    jedibeeftrix

    It (FPTP) is a perfectly good system for national elections to the Commons

    I don’t think it is. In effect what it means is that only local majorities get represented.

    One of the biggest motivating issues in my political development as growing up in a strong Labour ward in a “true blue” Tory part of the country. EVERY Member of Parliament for our county and the neighbouring counties was a Tory. What about those of us who lived in these places but felt the Tories had views and backgrounds that meant they just couldn’t speak for us? Who was there in Parliament to speak for us? How could some Labour MP for an inner London constituency or somewhere up in the industrial north speak for the particular issues of poor people living in the south?
    I felt that the people I grew up amongst were voiceless, unrepresented in national politics. That angered me. It still does. It angered me that Labour didn’t care about it, they were happy to leave us voiceless in return for safe seats in other parts of the country. That is why I became a Liberal.

  • If the Lib Dems cared about making politics competative and fair they wouldn’t have killed off the boudry reforms

  • Chris Greaves 5th Mar '13 - 9:02am

    Quindolino – I couldn’t agree more, and I wrote at length to Nick Clegg’s office at the time, bitterly complaining about it.

  • Old Codger Chris 6th Mar '13 - 1:14am

    I’m afraid I voted no to AV. Because it’s no more suitable for electing a parliament (or council) than FPTP. I saw no point in replacing one absurdity with another.

    That’s water under the bridge. Of course we need PR. Could Thatcher have ignored half the country if she had needed votes in Scotland (for example) as well as in southern England? Yes that’s come back to bite the Tories with a vengeance, but that doesn’t weaken the argument.

    Have to say I favour AMS over STV. But obviously some system incorporating a reasonable degree of proportionality is sorely needed.

  • A re-reading of the 1998 Roy Jenkins report is called for at this point. Here are its pretty devastating conclusions about AV for Westminster – “The Commission’s conclusions from these and other pieces of evidence about the operation of AV are threefold. First, it does not address one of our most important terms of reference. So far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it. Second, its effects (on its own without any corrective mechanism) are disturbingly unpredictable. Third, it would in the circumstances of the last election, which even if untypical is necessarily the one most vivid in the recollection of the public, and very likely in the circumstances of the next one too, be unacceptably unfair to the Conservatives. Fairness in representation is a complex concept, as we have seen in paragraph 6, and one to which the upholders of FPTP do not appear to attach great importance. But it is one which, apart from anything else, inhibits a Commission appointed by a Labour government and presided over by a Liberal Democrat from recommending a solution which at the last election might have left the Conservatives with less than half of their proportional entitlement. We therefore reject the AV as on its own a solution despite what many see as its very considerable advantage of ensuring that every constituency member gains majority acquiescence. ”

    One might be left to wonder why on earth the Conservatives risked a referendum on AV in the coalition agreement but it is certainly no surprise that they campaigned energetically against AV in that referendum. They must have had confidence (rightly as it turned out) in the inmate ‘small c’ conservatism of the British electorate in such matters.

    The Lib Dems should never have extracted an AV rederendum as their price for entering coalition. The negotiators must have felt that there was no chance of getting party grassroots support without some concession on voting system and AV was the only game in town. In major respects, as Jenkins argued, AV could be even worse than FTTP. Frankly many of us were reluctant campaigners in the referendum – we even had to still our consciences by calling it “fairer votes” because it would stick in the craw to call it “fair votes”.

    All this is a lengthy way of saying I agree entirely with Stephen’s piece. Proper PR for local government would have been a far better prize and could even have led gradually to greater public acceptance of it for Westminster.. Would it have been deliverable in the negotiations? Presumably we will never know, but once a Labour AV offer was on the table (indeed that was the move that triggered the surprising Conservative referendum concession) the relief the Conservatives would have felt in keeping their beloved FTTP sacrosanct at Westminster might well have tempted them to be flexible at local government level.

  • I support PR for the House of Commons as it is the only system that can deal with the multi-party politics we now have in this country. I cast a ‘positive abstention’ at that referendum ie I wrote on the ballot paper that we needed at least one and preferably more PR options to choose from which the Tory Party deliberately denied us. Seriously, the AV option was never going to be endorsed by the electorate as they could see that it would have failed to deal with the most glaring failure of our present system which is its disproportional effects (indeed in certain circumstances would have made it worse).

    I think the Lib Dems should aim to persuade Labour and the Tories to introduce STV for local elections. If this were introduced then a later referendum on PR for the House of Commons would be easier to win. I personally favour the Additional Member System of PR for parliament. Hopefully, we will get another hung parliament at the next election and the Lib Dems can use whatever leverage they have to achieve PR for local elections and perhaps a new referendum for the Commons on PR.

    By the way, I wouldn’t call myself a strong Lib Dem supporter (though I have voted for you) mainly because you support REAL democracy in this country and the Labour and Tory parties don’t.

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