Opinion: 2016 is the year Bristol should adopt STV

Understanding the cycle of elections for local authorities can be a complicated process for the elector. Last year, a vote at Full Council resolved that Bristol City Council would change its cycle from ‘elections by thirds’ to whole council elections or ‘all ups’, to commence in 2016. This is a unique opportunity for Bristol to prove it’s not afraid for bold change and to introduce the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system for elections to the council.

Turnout in local authority elections in England has always been lower than for Westminster elections. By introducing proportional representation in the form of STV, we can stimulate a renewed interest in local politics. Bristol has a long history of being bold and of not being afraid of change. Ten cities across the UK held referendums on 3rd May 2012 on whether or not to have a directly-elected Mayor. Bristol was the only city on the day that voted ‘Yes’. This desire to change our local democracy can be taken a step further.

For the 2015 General Election, it looks like Labour is moving towards supporting electoral reform in local government, something the Liberal Democrats have long favoured. We included a commitment to STV in our 2010 manifesto (pages 87-88). If there’s anything that holds our party together, it is a shared ambition for PR as part of a broader package of constitutional reform. The Bristol Liberal Democrats have previously campaigned for STV in local elections. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) meanwhile has been making the case for Labour to adopt STV for local elections. The ERS predict that out of 69 district and unitary councils, which are Labour free areas, 27 of those councils would have Labour representation under STV.

There are many advantages to STV. Although there is no perfect electoral system, STV is well-suited to the current structures in place in Bristol. The city has existing multi-member wards, which makes a transition to STV a smooth one. STV would complement how we elect our Mayor as voters are now used to marking down more than one preference when voting. Fears about minority administrations are also misplaced given that coalitions in local government have become common under First Past the Post. In any case, in Bristol the Mayor has welcomed all parties into his cabinet. It therefore makes no sense to continue with a non-preferential voting system to elect our councillors when on the same day voters will have preferences (albeit only two) to elect a Mayor.

STV is very much part of British history. STV was devised by British and Danish social reformers in the 19th century and it was used for the University seats that existed from 1918 to 1950. If STV was introduced in 2016, Bristol would not be alone. The system is used for local government elections in Northern Ireland (since 1973) and Scotland (since 2007), European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is for all these reasons that 2016 is the year Bristol should take a great leap forward and adopt STV for local elections.

* Alex Smethurst is a Parliamentary Assistant and candidate for Redland ward in Bristol in the local elections in May (written in a personal capacity).

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  • Richard Shaw 17th Feb '14 - 12:11pm

    Well put, but does Bristol have the power to adopt STV or would it require legislation from Westminster?

  • peter tyzack 17th Feb '14 - 12:56pm

    you had better get your bid in now, or opponents will be saying ‘there isn’t time to arrange it’ or ‘there are more important things to do’. To offer Bristol Council as a pilot is an excellent idea, and then to offer the four Parliamentary seats of Bristol for an STV pilot in 2020… why not.

  • @Peter – I don’t think you need a pilot. There’s enough evidence from Northern Ireland and Scotland about how it works; the parties are now used to campaigning using it (even Labour) and people understand it. Personally, I actually think that this would have been a better bargaining tool to use in the coalition agreement than the AV referendum – I suspect that the Tories might even have gone along with it without much of a change, which probably would also have meant we’d have got some Lords reforms through too.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Feb '14 - 5:00pm

    I think that STV for even one pilot Council would need primary legislation.


  • John Lister 17th Feb '14 - 6:55pm

    Worth noting the last set of local results (one-third of the total seats) didn’t work out that disproportional. Of the various parties, the actual number of seats wonand the number they “deserved” based on their percentage was:

    Lab: won 8/ deserved 6.9
    Con: 6 / 5.3
    LD: 5 / 4.7
    Grn: 2 / 3
    Ind *: 1 / 1.3
    UKIP: 0 / .94

    (* Independents for Bristol was a collective banner for several candidates.)

    UKIP was just below 5% so presumably wouldn’t meet a quota threshold. So really the worst you can say is that Labour got one “unfair” seat at the expense of the Greens.

  • Julian Tisi 18th Feb '14 - 1:11pm

    I’d like to see STV used in all local elections – and national ones for that. At the next GE I think we have a real chance of getting it introduced for local elections in England and Wales, as it exists already in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    However, I would not like to see councils – even Bristol – get to introduce STV unilaterally. First of all, it would need primary legislation. But even if it councils were allowed to choose their own electoral system, I have a more fundamental problem. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of local councils choosing what system elects them. I also don’t think it would be right to have the electoral system for local elections across the country differ from council to council – it’s the recipe for confusion and could give PR a bad name in the long run.

  • Sligo Town Council was the first part of the UK to introduce PR by STV , by means of a Private Bill, The Sligo Corporation Act 1910.

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