Opinion: Worst past the post? Debating electoral reform for local government

Last year in May, Scottish voters were given the chance to vote using the Single Transferable Vote to select their local councillors for the second time since the introduction of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act of 2004. The Bill owes its life to the Liberal Democrats; it was a key demand for us entering into the Lib-Lab coalition government in Scotland. Almost ten years on from when the Bill became law, STV has done what it says on the tin. It has produced almost proportional results (exact proportionality is pretty much impossible under any system), it has almost doubled the number of candidates standing per ward, and most importantly it has shrank the number of uncontested seats from sixty-one to zero. Of course, it hasn’t eliminated every single problem facing Scottish democracy. The 2007 local elections, the first under STV, saw almost 225,000 more people vote than at the previous set of local elections, the last under First Past the Post. But in the 2012 local elections in Scotland, turnout shrank once again. Although a change to the voting system is a great start, more must be done to reinvigorate local democracy across the UK.

As the manifestos of the three major parties are all being drawn up as we speak, this is the best possible time to be discussing the idea of proportional representation at local level for England and Wales. I very recently wrote an article for Conservative Home on the topic. While most of the comments are negative, there are enough positive replies there to get anyone who cherishes the long held by Liberal Democrats desire to see a PR system in place at elections for councillors thinking again about the possibilities.

At 8pm this Saturday, at Federal Conference in Brighton,  in Hall 8C, the ALDC in conjunction with the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform will be holding a fringe event entitled “Worst Past the Post: Why Local Government Desperately Needs Electoral Reform”. On the panel will be Baroness Jenny Randerson,  leader of Eastleigh Council and architect of last week’s Eastleigh by-election victory Keith House, Peter Facey, Director of Unlock Democracy, Darren Hughes, Director of Campaigns and Research at the ERS and Willie Sullivan, Director of ERS Scotland who has the experience of himself being voted into local government via STV during the 2007 local elections in Scotland. Hope to see you there.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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  • Couple of points from someone elected in 2007 on the first set of STV elections. FIrstly, turnout fell in 2012 because the elections were decoupled from the Scottish Parliament elections – it fell to around 37%, roughly in line with what it was before the Holyrood and Council elections happened on the same day.

    Liam makes a good point, but I found that STV actually went some way to achieving what he seems to want. It surprised me that we didn’t suggest changing the voting system for councils to STV in England rather than supporting the referendum on AV – this would have paved the way to make it much easier to introduce the same system to Westminster.

  • Michael Parsons 7th Mar '13 - 10:01am

    Having worked with LA’s over the years as a voluntary sector organiser I don’t hold out much hope for improvement from changing the elected officials. As a LibDem member I opine:-
    (1) there is no effective redress or in quiry against the full-time officials – the Ombudsman can be brushed off and for towns and parishes even that slight inquiry is lacking So-called “judicial inquiry” is incredibaly expensive, and if protestors are serious they will face teams of high-cost barristers paid for at pubic expense against them, and the risk ofcosts against them which means mortgaging their homes.
    (2) bureaucracy (ie no-one in charge) means the paid officers have a lobbying advantage ov er the public – they are paid by us to be there all the time – and know how to win the ear of councillors and manage agendas; councillors who are nervous of going out on a limb or putting their party at a disadavantage anyway, or else are dominated by the prevailing ethos, the local great and good etc. not least in land and planning dealings, where schemes are rarely public-initiated.
    (3)Peter’s Principle applies: officials are promoted to the level of their competence and then stick in a job they can barely cope with, while everyone rallies round on the precept that we sink or swim together; and fear exposure in our turn. Look at the repeated faiure to hold social servic es to accunt effectively for chilkd deaths, for example.
    (4) the mass of regulation and targets etc creates an impenetrable tangle of misdirection for any complaint or inquiry. No mechanism exists for enforcing success anyway.
    What to do?
    (a) Forget about PRep and establish a very strong protected whistle-blowers’ system
    (b) replace depatments by cooperatives where possible – get the “suits” spreading salt.
    (c) promote by lot: the assistant cashier or janitor probably has a more disinterested, honest and effective insight into good practice and wangles than the career-ladder self-marketing diploma-claiming aspirant.
    (d) fix a ratio if 4 to 1 between lowest and highest salaries and establish complete and open scrutiny by panels chosen yearly by lot from a large number of qualified local citizens (like the jury system), themselves to be checked in turn at the close of each year of office, and with power to question, examine papers and remove from office or demote.

    But probably all a bit too much like democracy for our British oligarchy? for our system of demagogic plutocrac y?

  • Julian Tisi 7th Mar '13 - 1:53pm

    An interesting article and I look forward to the fringe event on Saturday in Brighton.

    STV has clearly done good things for Scottish local democracy – but of course no electoral system can be a panacea.

    Peter raises an interesting point “multi member wards enable the useless councillor to be carried” – this was certainly true in our neck of the woods in Maidenhead, where in a 3 member ward where we held all 3 seats, 2 of the 3 were extremely hard working councillors and the other did nothing at all. When deselected for doing nothing he chose to defect to the Tories, standing against us and keeping his seat when we were all but wiped off the map in 2010. In the end sadly he died and in the ensuing bye-election we regained the seat. What’s the moral of this story? First past the post (FPTP) is the friend of the lazy councillor – and the lazy MP for that matter. On the back of local demographics and a national swing people can get elected with very little effort if they’re in the right party. In local elections most voters will vote for members of the same party, so the effect is even worse – and yes, a lazy councillor can get “carried” into power by more active colleagues. While STV won’t be a cure-all it will make it harder for the lazy councillor. It will also breathe life into wards which have in the past always returned councillors from just one party. Suddenly, these ultra-safe seats will be a little less safe and that can only be a good thing.

  • Keith Underhill 7th Mar '13 - 5:26pm

    Unless the Lib Dems suddenly become popular in Manchester in 2014 we will be facing a council with 96 Labour councillors and no opposition. We have 3 councillors in each ward and for some bizarre reason the elections are staggered over 4 years with a year with no elections (2013) where the abolished county elections used to be. .

    In 2011 and 2012 all the Lib Dem councillors who stood were defeated however hard they worked and all the Labour candidates were elected.

    This cannot be good for democracy!

  • Malcolm Morrison 8th Mar '13 - 3:01pm

    STV is ideal for multi-representaion – i.e. for Local Govt. with sveral members per ward (as also happens in many organisations voting for a ‘national councils’ without representatives from specific areas).

    When people have tried it, the see it works well – and attracts more voters than FPTP (First Past The Post).

    I fear our politicians (of the major partties) may be unwilling to ‘learn from experience’ – for it may involve their giving up their power!

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