Let this be the last first past the post election in London Boroughs

On 3rd May all the Borough Council seats in Greater London are up for election, which happens every four years. The Borough I live in is typical and has 18 3-member wards. Each voter votes by putting up to 3 Xs on the ballot paper. In each of these wards the top three candidates in terms of Xs on the ballot win. Hence F3PTP rather than FPTP (First Past The Post).

So what’s wrong with that? Five national parties are contesting the borough election, plus around four parties with Residents’ Association in their name, who are active in their own patches. Usually, a party sees its whole slate of three elected, but sometimes one candidate impacts more on the electorate, positively or negatively, and the result is a ‘split ward’. But I have seen nine candidates from three parties having each around 30% of the vote, but only one party gets the councillor seats. Natural justice suggests that they should have had one councillor each. With three councillors of one party, we KNOW that they were NOT the first choice of 70% of the electorate; at worst, the three victors could be the LEAST favoured candidates of 70% of the voters.

It gets worse. Some parties are so entrenched in certain seats that the others have given up. A friend of mine expressed it as ’If you put up a feather duster for XXXX party in YYYY ward, it would get elected.’ Two national parties contest all 54 seats, but the presence of the parents, spouses and children of local party worthies on the ballot papers gives a strong hint of what they think. The voters in such wards show what they think by not turning up to vote for the council, which, more than any other body, delivers government services to them.

Of course, if London boroughs followed Scotland and Northern Ireland and introduced STV, things would get a lot better. A voter is more likely to have a sympathetic ward councillor. Voters could vote honestly for the candidates they want, and have the safety net of still having a say amongst the other candidates if their favourites didn’t win. The voter wouldn’t need tactical voting, with its risk that he/she guessed the order of the parties completely wrong – always more likely in a local election. The ballot papers could say the same; instead of 3 Xs you vote with 1 to, say, 16. When you no longer care, you stop writing numbers. Diehards of F3PTP only need use 1,2,3. Counting staff will need some retraining, but these are the same people who count GLA elections, which use three other voting systems.

There is a saving. Around 15 years ago the borough underwent re-warding, with a rigid target of 10,000 electors per ward. Many wards have about the same, but two or three are growing towards 13,000. Under STV those could be given a fourth councillor. No expensive re-drawing. Simples.

* Ian joined the Liberal Democrats (then the SLD) in 1989 and has campaigned and attended conferences since 1994. He was Liberal Democrat candidate for Romford in 2015 and 2017 and for Havering and Redbridge in 2016.

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  • John Marriott 20th Apr '18 - 12:15pm

    Of course FPTP needs consigning to the dustbin of History; but how do you get Joe Public to support change? Many of us reckon that, following the AV Referendum, the chance for change has probably been scuppered for at least a generation.

  • Peter Martin 20th Apr '18 - 12:46pm

    It’s all very well to in favour of PR when the Lib Dems are on 20% of the vote, but what about when UKIP, or possibly some even further far right party, are riding high in the polls?

    Do we really want them to have a 100+ seats in Parliament?

  • John Marriott 20th Apr '18 - 1:37pm

    @Peter Martin
    I totally agree with Ian. There is one way of preventing the kind of multi party representation as occurs in Israel and was the feature of the Reichstag in Weimar Germany and that is to introduce, as the West Germans did for the 1953 elections for the Bundestag, the so called “Fünf Prozent Sperrklausel”, which meant that a party needed to get at least 5% of the popular vote to get any seats at all. Unfortunately the FDP, which is the nearest the Germans have to a Liberal Party, has in the past fallen victim to this rule!

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 20th Apr '18 - 1:55pm

    Not just London Boroughs but all English local elections. We need proportional representation for local government and this should be one of several red lines for Liberal Democrats before supporting or participating in a future government.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 20th Apr '18 - 2:02pm

    Adrian, isn’t the key thing about your vote in Scotland is that it is transferable to give a proportional result? The parties can put up full slates of candidates. I didn’t know people were only putting up single candidates. They don’t do that in Ireland or most other territories that use STV.

  • David Evans 20th Apr '18 - 2:32pm

    Ian, Nick and our negotiating team blew the one chance we had to get PR in 2010. Probably not for the HoC, but for local councils. It was the chance for one more step on the way, but they went for broke and lost it all.

    Now we are back to where we were 50 years ago.

  • John Wheaver 20th Apr '18 - 6:27pm

    Please – when we get the chance – put forward a strong clear argument! Most significantly, with a transferable vote, to reject a candidate you vote for any of the others – you can even vote for the Party you support! (Not for the one that you guess would be second). One who gets 51% still wins of course.
    With FPTP (Once you have more that 2 candidates) the candidate that is most disliked by the voter can win. With only 3 candidates: 40%, 30%, 30% – among the 60% who did not vote for “the winner” there could well be 50% voting for them to lose. With more candidates it gets crazier.

  • @Peter, I agree with Ian. If UKIP had ever managed to get themselves an MP, they’d have struggled to maintain any sense of credibility. I actually think that it helped Farage to permanently snipe from the side-lines without having to be held accountable. He could get away with not turning up to committee’s in Brussels, because there was little media interest, and his core support could interpret that as rightful disdain for a corrupt organisation, blah, blah, blah … He’d have been subject to much more criticism if he’d tried to behave that way in Westminster.

    I’d say it makes sense to spearhead the campaign for STV in local authorities in London, as they are already used to different voting systems, and with multi-member wards already in place, there’s less for them to get their heads around. I hope that those campaigning in the local elections will use it as an opportunity to explain the system, and how much easier it would be for the community to have their honest voice heard. And it helps that the London Assembly made a point of voting to keep their own form of PR and not revert to FPTP as May wanted.

    My experience of Scottish local elections is that most wards have at least double the candidates as there are seats, with the more confident parties putting forward two or three representatives.

  • True Ian, but they were always treated as Tory MPs gone rogue, so like most other people, I tend to forget about them! However, the point stands, that if UKIP had somehow got MPs in proportion with their vote, their vote would have collapsed a lot sooner. I remain convinced that not becoming an MP gave Farage far more freedom to sabre rattle and ultimately influence Government than he’d have managed if he’d been elected.

    But of course if the public really do want UKIP MPs, then the public deserve UKIP MPs. To say otherwise, is to say you are against democracy.

  • Lawrence Fullick 21st Apr '18 - 9:19am

    Poole Council Lib Dem group are seeking PR elections to the new authority for Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch in May 2019.

  • I hope the London regional party will take up this excellent initiative.
    A number of thoughts come to mind:-
    Although the concept of change to a fairer voting system enjoys majority support when people are asked in opinion polls, they mostly don’t see it as a priority or appreciate the extent to which FPTP impoverishes our political system. Probably the issue is perceived in party political terms or to put it crudely Liberal Democrats whinging. It must be made clear that electoral reform is a matter of principle i.e. transcending party interest. This raises the strange prospect of a progressive-regressive alliance for reform.
    London probably has the most diverse variety of large and small minority groups who are presently grossly under represented on borough councils. Therefore, a wide spectrum of potential allies exists.
    The arguments for STV are irrefutable and the usual tactic deployed by the opposition is to ignore and marginalise any debate on the topic. The standard nonsense trotted out by proponents of FPTP in the national context, when they can’t avoid comment, is that it results in strong government. A patently absurd view of the last two GEs and irrelevant because the primary purpose of democratic elections is to select representative bodies.
    The best vehicle for a successful London wide campaign would be a non-party group. The history of previous umbrella groups is uninspiring, to put it politely, because they were diverted away from STV in favour of compromise solutions that were not really PR at all.
    Timing is important. Is now, post the full borough elections, the results of which in each borough will throw up examples of the travesty of democracy produced by the current rules, the optimum time for a major campaign on this? Probably not unless the ground work has been going on quietly in the background and the competition for attention with halting of EU exit.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '18 - 3:58pm
  • How was such a system ever designed ?

    Basically by successive Liberal Prime Ministers before the Liberal Party became a minor party.

  • Teresa Wilson 21st Apr '18 - 5:06pm

    David Raw, it worked when there were just two parties, which was the case before 1900. I don’t think it ever was designed as such. At one time your MP was just your representative in parliament (if you were one of the tiny minority with a vote), the party system developed later.

  • Teresa Wilson 21st Apr '18 - 5:10pm

    @ Peter Martin
    None of the European nations with PR have produced a majority for a far right party. I suspect many of the votes for UKIP were protest votes than may never have been cast had the voters thought there was a real chance of them gaining power, but if I’m wrong I’m still not sure we should be hanging on to an outdated system just to prevent UKIP or their ilk getting more seats.

  • Teresa. The Conservative party was founded in 1834 and theLiberal party in 1859.

    PR could have been introduced in 1918 by Lloyd George. It wasn’t.

  • No one’s interested in PR or what the LIb Dems have to say. You’re not even a protest party any more. Dream on.

    Trust me. I used to vote for you.

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