Local government reform: a progress report from Spring Conference

Between the AV referendum and the House of Lords, the cause of electoral reform has taken a few punches recently. But this year’s Spring Conference showed that Liberal Democrats have far from given up the fight.

Member contributions at consultative sessions on Political & Constitutional Reform and the next General Election manifesto revealed a strong appetite for reform to local government elections in England and Wales. And the same issue was addressed in detail at a packed Saturday evening fringe entitled ‘Worst Past the Post: why local government desperately needs electoral reform’.

The event, jointly sponsored by Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and ALDC, was ably chaired by Cllr Claire Hudson. Darren Hughes and Willie Sullivan from the Electoral Reform Society began the evening with a short film on the Scottish experience of STV. Chronicling the day of the 2012 local elections, this showed how STV had prompted major parties to extend their campaigning, while offering minor parties a real chance of fair representation. Voters reported that they found the system easy to use, and liked being able to vote for smaller parties without feeling that they were wasting their votes.

After the film, Darren and Willie reported that Prof. John Curtice’s research into the effects of STV on Scottish local elections had shown that the average number of candidates per ward had doubled, while uncontested wards had been eliminated entirely. They also pointed out that because STV had allowed the Conservatives to secure seats in areas of Scotland where they were previously shut out, this could encourage them to accept it in Wales, where similar conditions apply.

Even Liberal Democrats can sometimes benefit disproportionately from First Past the Post, as the next speaker and leader of Eastleigh Borough Council, Keith House, knows. Keith explained that the Lib Dems typically secure around 50% of the total vote across Eastleigh borough, but 90% of the council seats. This provided a firm foundation for the recent national by-election, but Keith was under no illusions about the disadvantages of single-party dominance at local level: for example, the absence of an effective opposition, or too little incentive to campaign.

At Hampshire County Council level, Keith explained that FPTP elections consistently allocate all of the rural wards to Tory councillors, while Eastleigh and Winchester are the preserve of the Lib Dems. STV would reflect voter preferences more accurately, giving both parties some representation in both contexts and allowing Labour to win seats as well. Keith’s view was that the need for all parties to cooperate in this situation would foster a much more progressive council overall.

We heard next from Baroness Jenny Randerson, former Welsh Assembly Member and current Welsh Officer Minister. Results for local elections in Wales are even more disproportionate than England thanks to the use of First Past the Post in ‘all-up’ block elections every four years. This system can allow one party to take all of the seats in a multi-member ward at once with less than 50% of the vote, and in Wales it meant that Labour increased their share of seats by 70% in a single election in 2012.

But, as Baroness Randerson explained, all-up elections do mean that voters in Wales are used to long ballot papers. In fact, some people already respond to these papers by trying to signal their preferences between the candidates: so STV would not be too radical a change from their perspective. The challenges in Wales were that powers over local government elections still rest with the UK Parliament, for whom the issue is not a priority, while any Labour Assembly Members who express support for change quickly come under pressure from their party to withdraw it.

Finally, Peter Facey from Unlock Democracy addressed practical strategies for achieving reform. He said that in both England and Wales, the most likely context for progress would be coalition negotiations: though for Wales, power over local government elections would need to be devolved first. In England, it needed to be a red-line issue for the Liberal Democrats. But for this to really work, it is not enough to just put it in our next manifesto. We need to articulate the case for reform clearly, and start work on persuading the other parties in advance.

Peter also set out what he felt would be the most persuasive argument in a coalition negotiation: that any party going into government inevitably loses councillors, as voters punish them locally for national issues. STV mitigates those losses, making them less extreme than under FPTP. He further argued that the power to choose electoral systems should be localised, not imposed from the top down. This, after all, lives up to the Liberal Democrat principle of freedom from conformity. It would also mean that we could campaign on it locally, presenting STV as a solution to the particular problems of an individual area.

After the panellists had set out the examples, the arguments and the strategy, the questions which followed demonstrated the audience’s passion for local government reform. If you would like to help Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform to take the issue forward, and to strengthen the party’s voice on electoral reform more generally, you can join us by emailing [email protected] to request a membership form.

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