First Past the Post failed English local democracy this year

This May the Liberal Democrats made remarkable gains in local elections across England. From winning the second highest number of seats in councils up for election (pushing the Conservatives into third place) to returning to third place in the London mayoral election and winning our first ever London Assembly constituency seat, the Liberal Democrats are on the cusp of regaining our place as Westminster’s third largest party come 4 July.

That rise is a major story of the 2024 local elections, one deserving more media attention. But the story of how the elections were skewed by First Past the Post must also be heard.

Once again our archaic voting system distorted the link between citizens and their representatives, an outcome that will be seen again in July. Take a look at Fareham council where the Conservatives secured a majority of seats on just 41% of votes cast. Then there’s Plymouth where Labour won a majority of seats up for election on 44% of the vote. Lib Dem-run councils aren’t immune from this either. That’s not to take away from the hard work of local campaigns across the country (if anything we often have to work harder under the current voting system and two-party system to win seats!), but to recognise we operate within a flawed system. First Past the Post consistently warps the link between seats and their votes just as much at the local level as at Westminster.

Furthermore, this May we also saw the consequences of the government’s Elections Act, which abolished the Supplementary Vote for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. The Supplementary Vote was far from perfect – preferential voting would be preferable for single-member executive positions if we are to have them at all – but it gave mayors and PCCs a broader mandate than they otherwise would have. In the first ever York and North Yorkshire election this year, Labour’s David Skaith became mayor on just 35% of the vote – on a turnout of less than 30%. If we are to have directly elected executive mayors, it is vital they have a broad mandate to represent their region effectively. The status-quo isn’t delivering but there are alternatives to our failing First Past the Post system.

Liberal Democrats in government have improved the way we elect local politicians before. And we can do it again. Our coalition with Labour abolished First Past the Post in Scottish local government and introduced Proportional Representation across all 32 local authorities. Thanks to the Single Transferable Vote, Scottish councils fairly represent Scottish voters and the incentive to vote tactically is severely limited. And crucially, STV gives voters power over individual candidates, not just parties.

Our party also helped deliver the Scottish Parliament with its broadly proportional system. The Additional Member System isn’t perfect but it has consistently delivered more representative parliaments at Holyrood than a FPTP system otherwise would have.

There’s ample evidence that First Past the Post is letting down communities across the country. That’s why the next UK parliament should abolish First Past the Post in its entirety – that means at every level. Transforming the House of Commons into a truly representative chamber would be a remarkable win for fair votes. But amid any opportunity to upgrade the Commons after 4 July, local government reform must not fall by the wayside.

Liberal Democrats have implemented constitutional change before and can do it again. Let’s fix politics now and abolish First Past the Post once and for all.

 

* Richard Wood is a member of the Liberal Democrats. He sat on the Electoral Reform Society Council (2022 - 2023) and has been on the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform executive committee since 2021.

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11 Comments

  • Martin Gray 20th Jun '24 - 6:46pm

    If Labour – as predicted win by a landslide I can’t see a change in the voting system anytime soon. PCC and local elections have a poor turnout – no amount of a change of system will improve that . A lot of voters are just not political & vote once every 5 years – Pr or stv are not on the minds of most voters.
    As for turnouts it works both ways – we control Hull on a 21% turnout in May – is that what you’d call a mandate ?

  • Neil Hickman 20th Jun '24 - 8:20pm

    Sadly, Martin, I fear you’re right.
    Labour apparatchiks would far rather a monopoly Labour government than one dependent on the Lib Dem’s (and kept honest on civil liberties) and the Greens (and kept honest on the environment). And they are prepared to run the risk of a Farageist party gaining monopoly power on 35% (as Labour did in 2005) or 36% (as the Tories did in 2015).
    If Starmer was clear-sighted, he would immediately convene a Speaker’s Conference. His membership would back him as would all the opposition parties (probably, amusingly, including the Tories). But no doubt he’ll listen to the great and wise Mandelson…

  • Mary Fulton 21st Jun '24 - 7:37am

    Cheer up! Current polls suggest we could win 10% of the vote and around 65MPs – just about perfect proportionality….

  • Peter Davies 21st Jun '24 - 1:50pm

    Indeed. At the Locals we actually got a higher proportion of seats than votes.

  • Andrew Toye 21st Jun '24 - 2:11pm

    We should highlight the Tory hypocrisy when trying to frighten voters from contemplating voting Reform: vote Reform and get a Labour landslide.

    They should be loudly proclaiming that you get what you vote for because FPTP is the best system ever invented.

  • Looking at the results of Scottish local elections using STV each party only fields one candidate, so in the four member wards four parties each win one seat and in the three member wards three parties each win one. Maybe it’s just me but that doesn’t seem very satisfactory. The same thing happens in Ireland too. Surely elections should be about winners and losers? With STV every election’s a draw.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Jun '24 - 8:32am

    After the 4th July, will Lib Dems start thinking that FPTP is perhaps not so bad after all? 🙂

    https://www.ft.com/content/0afa2c8f-3e4f-4b2c-83be-cda81250dfc6

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Jun '24 - 3:59pm

    Perhaps Labour with its huge majority will do something that benefits the whole country, namely implement PR. It’s certainly something that would be reasonable given that it won’t in itself alter the result of the next election after this. In the game of looking for cheap policy gains PR must be towards the top.

  • Tom Hannigan 23rd Jun '24 - 6:08pm

    The 3 main parties in Ireland frequently nominate more than one candidate in our multi seat constituencies which can have 3,4 or 5 seats. It depends on what your strength is in an area which tells you how many seats you can realistically expect to win. Smaller parties generally put up just one candidate to maximise their chances of winning a seat.

  • John Marriott 23rd Jun '24 - 8:01pm

    @Peter Martin
    Under PR I reckon that, with their current opinion poll rating of around 12%, the Lib Dems might expect to get around 78 seats at Westminster.
    @Peter Hirst
    Some of us hoped back in 1992 that Blair might give some serious thought to PR. However, if anyone thought that, with FPTP giving him a landslide victory, he would bring in PR (other than commission the late Lord Jenkins to produce a report, which he promptly kicked into the long grass), they would be deluding themselves.

    Unfortunately we had our chance of a modest change in 2011 and managed to blow it.

  • John Marriott refers to very recent history when he mentions 2011. In fact there was an earlier and much more likely opportunity for PR during the passage of the Representation of the People Act back in 1918.

    There was a Coalition Government with a Liberal Prime Minister (Lloyd George) and sufficient Liberal MPs to ensure PR could have been adopted, but for various reasons (Asquith said the constituencies would be too big) they failed to press the issue. They clearly didn’t have a crystal ball.

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