Make votes matter in Wales

Currently, excitement at prospects of electoral reform in the UK is mostly focused on the forthcoming debate  on 30 October in the House of Commons, arising from a petition organised by Make Votes Matter.  While this is an excellent piece of consciousness-raising, it seems sadly unlikely to lead to any reform in the near future.

In contrast, there is a real opportunity for progress in Wales, where the devolved government is considering introducing the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for council elections, along with a range of other election-related reforms.  The deadline for responding to the Welsh Government consultation on this issue is 10 October.

Reform in Wales could be key for the wider UK context: Northern Ireland and Scotland already have STV for local government elections; if Wales could follow their successful example, we would be in that much stronger a position to persuade England to do the same, giving all UK voters the experience of a fairer voting system.

One consultation after another…

The background to the current consultation is a little complicated.  Earlier this year the Welsh Government ran a more general consultation on reform of Local Government; a summary of the responses was published in July. This first consultation had just one, albeit wide-ranging, question on electoral reform, which included both asking for those in favour of changing to STV (12-8 against), and asking whether changing the system should be left for individual councils to decide (26-1 against). It would be interesting to know who the 12 against STV were: of the 169 responses to the consultation overall, 19 were from county and county borough councils but only 9 from members of the public.

The current consultation is focused on electoral reform. Like so many consultations that appear to have been designed to discourage public response, it is a very long document, asking 46 questions.  These include (Qs 13-14) the idea of reform being an option left to each council, despite its strong rejection in the first consultation, and indeed make it worse by suggesting that it should only happen if a 2/3 majority of councilors vote for it.  Yet astonishingly this time there is no question as to whether you are in favour of STV.  This despite the fact that one answer to many of the other questions on the lines of `how do we engage better with the electorate so that more people vote?’ is: use a fairer system so as to make votes matter.

…but please respond to this one

It seems that the Welsh cabinet are divided on the issue of STV, with the Minister for Local Government, Mark Drakeford, and the sole Liberal Democrat, Kirsty Williams, in favour, but a number of other ministers strongly against. In this situation it would be very helpful to get a strong positive response to the consultation, so I hope that any of you reading this in Wales will send a response before the deadline of 10 October.  It is not necessary to fill in the whole response form, you can simply send an email to [email protected]  with subject `Consultation on Electoral reform in local government in Wales’. [If you wish to refer to the relevant part of the consultation document, it is `Section 4. The voting system’ (page 14).]

I suggest that the key request should be that the Welsh government follows the example of the Scottish Parliament by simply introducing STV for all council elections as part of their forthcoming Local Government Bill.  [Incidentally the government that introduced the reform in Scotland was also a Labour/LibDem coalition.]

Also, please oppose allowing councils to opt in or out of reform.  It’s a bad idea in itself: human nature being what it is, it’s the councils most in need of reform that are likely to vote against it.  And it would set a very unfortunate precedent, especially thinking of extending the reform to England.

If you want to respond to the whole consultation (there are other interesting issues, including votes for 16 and 17 year olds), you can fill in the form available online here.

Note that if you want to support STV, it is probably best to do this under the final Question 46 (“other related issues”).

* Denis Mollison joined the SDP in 1981 and is an active member of East Lothian Liberal Democrats. He is a former member of Scottish Policy Committee and devised the STV scheme for the UK Parliament put forward by Lib Dems in Parliament (as an amendment to Labour's "Electoral Reform" Bill) in Feb 2010. He is currently a committee member for Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform.

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10 Comments

  • Thanks for drawing this to our attention Denis.

    My experience in Scotland is that STV forces councillors to work harder for their constituents, and all candidates work harder for votes come election time. I’m sure this is why many currently in office are nervous of it.

    There is always a bit of discussion over ‘which way are we voting this time?’ due to having FPTP for Westminster, and an additional member system for Holyrood, and opponents always try to make the system sound more complicated than it is, but I think many definitely appreciate not having to compromise or second-guess how fellow constituents will vote when deciding how to vote themselves.

    I hope you get a lot of support for this, and support your call for all Welsh members to have their say. I agree that the debate in the commons is unlikely to lead to any change, but it is also part of a move to keep the subject relevant, and I hope everyone hear takes the opportunity to contact their local MP. Theresa May knew a debate on electoral reform was lined up when she called the election, and wanted to stifle that debate electoral reform in in the recent Tory manifesto. That failed, but she’ll probably try again, so we need to take all opportunities to progress the cause when they become available.

  • May I ask the active member of East Lothian Liberal Democrats whether when this issue came up in Scotland (and presumably he campaigned in support of again) his opening and closing arguments were about what this could mean for England?

    Yes, voting reform in Wales, and yes, voting reform in the UK model too. However, please focus your ongoing campaign on why it would be a positive thing for Wales before speaking about why it would be a positive to have it all across the UK.

  • Denis Mollison 1st Oct '17 - 11:44am

    @DJ
    I gave the piece a UK framework because public attention over electoral reform is currently mainly focused on reform of the UK parliament.

    The arguments as to why STV would be good for Wales are essentially the same as they were in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I emphasized those examples because nothing beats experience of a system in actual use. General explanations of the advantages of STV are widely available, e.g. STVaction’s the main advantages of having the Singe Transferable Vote; though that reference is aimed more at parliamentary voting. For local government there are additional reasons for STV, including`one-party states’, uncontested seats, and giving independent candidates their share of seats.

  • David Evans 1st Oct '17 - 11:58am

    DJ, What a curious way to refer to Denis – “the active member of East Lothian Liberal Democrats.” It almost sounds snide. But can I ask, DJ, why did you choose such a peculiar means of address, if it wasn’t just to be snide?

  • STV is far superior to First Past the Post or AV. However, experience in Scotland has shown it to be imperfect in a number of ways.

    For small parties there are problems, particularly in the way that by-elections are handled. They can get the 20-25% needed in an election to get a councillor elected in a 4 member ward but if anything happens to that councillor, they have virtually no chance of holding the seat at the by-election even if their support has gone up since the election. Why? Because by-elections are handled by AV which does not take the election of the other councillors in the ward into account. Instead of needing 20-25%, they need to get to 50%+1, to hold the seat which is a very tough ask. It is just not democracy to have seats changing hands even when not a single vote has changed.

    There are problems for larger parties too. STV requires very careful voter management. Because not all voters transfer their votes (you can’t force them to) , fielding too many candidates can lead to a loss of seats as your party votes get split too many ways and candidates get eliminated prematurely. Field too few, however, and you miss out on the chance of getting councillors elected. Parties have to make very careful calculations about the optimum number of candidates to field and don’t always get it right.

    Even when the right number of candidates are fielded, there is a bias among voters of giving their first preference to the candidate of their favoured party that are nearest the top of the list on the ballot paper. These are the ones with surnames nearest the beginning of the alphabet. Candidates with surnames near the end of the alphabet are least likely to attract first preferences and are at risk of being eliminated prematurely in the count. One proposal in Scotland is to print sets of ballot papers. Each set with an equal number of each ordering of candidates. It has yet to be implemented.

    No system of voting is perfect. While STV is far better than what you have, be aware that it is also imperfect and what its drawbacks are.

    And any form of voting is far better than what the way the Spanish government are behaving today. Carrying out acts of violence on people trying to vote is not the way we resolve political differences in a civilised democracy.

  • Denis Mollison 1st Oct '17 - 1:38pm

    @AI
    By-elections under STV are a problem; there are alternatives, but none wholly satisfactory.

    All the other problems you mention can be solved or significantly ameliorated – see Community-centred democracy: fine-tuning the STV system. That also proposes a different approach to drawing ward boundaries, looking at how a small increase in flexibility could allow a much better fit to natural communities.

  • Am very sure that STV for every election at every level is a good aim in itself. Am not sure that introducing STV in Wales because it would then help England to be persuaded to do the same is the best way of putting the case!

  • Andrew McCaig 1st Oct '17 - 8:29pm

    STV should certainly be the system of choice for local elections. But the key thing I want is at least one councillor from my party, and the ability to choose both between candidates from my Party AND candidates of other Parties. That way the best councillors will get elected..
    A few points:
    1) 3 is in my opinion too low a number of seats in an STV election to make the system work as it really should, giving representation to as many voters in each ward as possible. 5 is the number in the NI assembly and I would regard 6 as better than 4. In metropolitan areas, I would make 6 the norm, relaxing that down as necessary in rural areas. Where I come from in Kirklees plenty of the councillors, especially from Labour, don’t live in their 3 member ward anyway..
    2. I would oblige all political parties to put up at least 2 candidates, although in larger wards that would be in their interest anyway. The larger the number of councillors in a ward the harder it is for Parties to manage votes..
    3. I agree about randomised ballot papers. The alphabet effect can be a problem in all multimember election systems
    4. I would not get hung up about by-elections by AV (still much better than by FPTP), or the intricacies of STV counting systems. If the last candidate elected does not meet the quota I don’t see a big problem, tbh, and I much prefer a system that can be checked by hand…

  • @David Evans. It was simply to draw attention to his Celtic roots and highlight that it’s strange to consider what voting reform means in Wales from the perspective of what it could mean in England. It has since been explained that it was a UK framework.
    The UK is a wonderful and important union however it is weakened if people think it’s a case of England or England plus one other.

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Oct '17 - 12:46pm

    As an outsider I think the welsh sense of fairness will win out as long as the process is also fair. It should be by referendum of the electorate. What goes on the ballot paper is critical as we’ve discovered during the Brexit debate.

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