London’s democracy isn’t perfect: City Hall needs electoral reform

There’s a massive gulf between where our democracy is and where it should be. Time and time again, First Past the Post distorts the link between seats and votes in the House of Commons while the House of Lords makes a mockery of the notion that we have a representative democracy. Not to mention the stark reality that our political system is far too centralised – despite almost 25 years of devolution.

Of course, we’ve made some great steps forward. The devolved parliaments and assemblies, as well as the introduction of Proportional Representation for Scottish councils, are great achievements of modern politics – all positive, progressive Liberal Democrat wins alongside Labour.

Yet there’s much more to be done to build a better democracy. Instead of championing further democratic upgrades, the Conservatives are taking this country backwards. The introduction of voter ID checks for all the wrong reasons and the abolition of the Supplementary Vote for mayoral elections are two huge missteps.

We need big and radical overhauls like PR, a democratic upper chamber and a written codified constitution. But we also need reforms in less urgent but still important areas.

London faces another election this May. Our party has a real opportunity to grow in the capital, both by winning more assembly seats and beating the Greens back into fourth place.

Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon last year rightly championed the case for further devolution in London and across the UK. Devolving powers away from Westminster is the right move to empower citizens and ultimately strengthen our democracy.

Looking ahead to May’s election, and as someone in their fourth year of living in London, I see a strong case for reforming the Greater London Authority’s democratic mechanisms.

The upcoming mayoral vote will be the first to take place under the First Past the Post system following the Tory government’s regressive Elections Act passed in 2022. The Supplementary Vote is an imperfect way of electing single-member positions, but it was a minor improvement on FPTP as it gave winners a broader mandate than they would otherwise have.

The recent change to FPTP results in a real clash of principles. Our next mayor will likely be elected with minority support while holding real executive power. In contrast, there will also be an assembly elected via a broadly proportional system with limited powers. A collective political body with diverse, representative views and opinions elected via a fairly representative system should have much more legitimacy than one individual elected on a minority of the vote.

Directly elected executive mayors should have as much legitimacy as possible, and that means a mechanism to secure broad support. We could debate the validity of having mayors at all but if we’re going to have them then they should at least be elected via a fair system such as the Single Transferable Vote (more accurately the Alternative Vote for single-member positions) where voters rank candidates in order of preference. This ensures that elected candidates end up with a broad mandate.

Furthermore, the Assembly isn’t without its own problems. London AMs are elected via a form of Proportional Representation, but that specific system is far from perfect as also shown by results in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. The Additional Member System (AMS) creates two tiers of Assembly Members (constituency and list), is only broadly proportional (Labour consistently wins 48% of seats on around 40% of the vote) and doesn’t empower voters as much as other systems.

Adopting the Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies in the London Assembly would create a single tier of representatives, improve proportionality (if implemented appropriately) and empower voters by allowing them to rank candidates in order of preference.

The same should be said for local elections across all 32 London boroughs, and indeed across England, which use First Past the Post. It’s been 17 years since the abolition of First Past the Post in Scottish local elections, thanks to Lib Dems in government, and the results speak for themselves. Switching to STV for English local elections will improve local representation and encourage parties to work together for the good of the community.

This Conservative government is levelling down our democracy. We must strengthen our electoral reform efforts. This of course means championing big, bold reforms to our creaking central institutions but we must also build upon progress already made at the devolved level. That includes City Hall.

 

* 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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4 Comments

  • Mary Fulton 4th Jan '24 - 6:56pm

    Agree with the need to move towards STV. The issue is one of thinking intelligently about how this can be achieved. My view is that STV is now embedded as the system of electing local councillors in Scotland and it is a logical step for Scotland to vote to change its parliamentary electoral system to STV as well, both to reduce the complexity of having three voting systems for three levels of elections and also to get a fairer and better voting system in itself. I think there may be a good opportunity to get the main parties to agree to this in the next few years. Labour wanted the current Additional Member System originally as, at the time, they expected to dominate in the constituency section. However, they may now see things differently and see an advantage to them in changing to STV. Since the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats already support STV, there must be a chance of getting STV legislated for in the near future. Scotland may then lead a path that could be replicated elsewhere in the UK. Let’s start pushing for this now.

  • Peter Davies 4th Jan '24 - 8:36pm

    @Mary Fulton. The problem is that the method of election for Westminster is a matter for Westminster. I can’t see a Labour government giving the Tories more seats in Scotland without a quid-pro-quo for them in the South. More credible is that having a plurality in Westminster that will make them unpopular in local elections, they might consider copying Scotland and introducing STV for local elections.

  • Mary Fulton 4th Jan '24 - 11:33pm

    @Peter Davies
    Yes, it will be harder to get a change to STV for Westminster elections, but if we can get it for elections to the Scottish Parliament as well as Scottish local councils ( and it is already used for elections to both Northern Irish councils and elections to the Northern Irish Assembly), it may be easier for people to argue for STV for councils elections in Wales, maybe for London Assembly elections, and so on. I do agree that the final nut to crack is likely to be Westminster elections.

  • Oliver Leonard 5th Jan '24 - 2:29pm

    Yes the chance to FPTP is bad news for London it effectively means Sadiq Khan is guaranteed another term as voters don’t want an extreme right-wing Tory elected and it’s unlikely that any other party can beat them other than Labour so it’s a huge setback when the Lib Dems could have likely beaten Khan or at least come 2nd.

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