The Independent View: Our voting system’s rubbish

On May 4th, the one third of voters in England who can be bothered will traipse off to their local polling stations to vote in this year’s round of council elections. They will cheerfully sign away their democratic rights with an X and, if they think of it at all, many will assume that, if a party polls 4 out of 10 votes, the voting system will ensure that they win 4 out of 10 seats.

Unfortunately, our inefficient Victorian First-past-the-post voting system fails to achieve this, with disastrous consequences for English local government. On most English councils, seats taken fail to match votes cast.

And crucially, because the relevant statistics are not readily available, these injustices are not published by the media, and so go unnoticed by the electorate.

Accordingly, in an endeavour to draw attention to the damage being done to local democracy by continued use of the First-past-the-post-voting system (FPTP), I have compiled an Awful A-Z of English Council Election Disasters, comprising a summary of the results for all English local authorities listed in alphabetical order.

This list is available to view at www.supervote.org.uk which is a small website I run in aid of voting reform.  While it is essentially an amateur compilation, I believe this is the first time that a snapshot of the disparities between seats won and votes cast in all local elections across England has been attempted.

I am afraid the overall picture is quite shocking; some of these results are not so much undemocratic as downright obscene, far worse than the worst Westminster results.

The wooden spoon goes to the London Borough of Lewisham where in 2022, Labour took 100% of the seats with just 52% of the consolidated vote, with the result that there is no opposition of any description on this Council to hold Labour to account.

And Lewisham is just the tip of the iceberg: undemocratic discrepancies abound, evidencing a situation that would have been controversial in a general election to be commonplace in local government. Even an outwardly acceptable result such as on Bristol City Council can obscure injustices at a ward level where, for example, in Bristol’s Westbury-on-Trym & Henleaze Ward, the Conservatives took all 3 of the ward seats with just 36% of the consolidated vote; while the minority have 3 councillors of their political persuasion, the majority have none!

I believe that the undemocratic results occasioned by continued use of FPTP for local government elections threaten to have dire consequences for the very fabric of our democracy: There are many local communities where one political party dominates and has done so for decades, albeit in terms of seats taken, rather than votes won.

In these places, FPTP elections are a mere formality; the top dogs don’t have to put themselves out and opposition parties either put up a token campaign or just give up, resulting in no meetings, no canvassing, no leaflets, no banners or bunting, no discourse at any level, and little indication that there’s an election on at all, resulting in abysmal levels of voter participation and a one-party fiefdom which rules forever, in many cases inefficient, complacent and corruptible, being untroubled by any meaningful opposition.

As a result, I believe we are witnessing a  worrying decline of political activity in local communities, arguably the coalface of our democracy. Specifically, long gone are the days when being a member of a political party was a mainstream activity (11% of the UK population in the 1950s, 1.5% today) and only a fraction of the membership that remains is active. The current merging of small local councils into larger impersonal regional units isn’t helping either: once “local” becomes “regional”, the public’s appreciation of the relevance and importance of democracy at the grass roots goes off the boil.

The introduction of Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member wards throughout England would, I believe, not only ensure that seats won matched votes cast but would also breathe new life into our local politics and ultimately our democracy, with thriving local party associations, healthy competition, increased voter participation and everything for everyone everywhere to play for.

* David Green is the publisher of the Supervote Website .

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12 Comments

  • Michael Cole 15th Mar '23 - 1:30pm

    Well said David. I agree with you 100%.

    I have briefly visited: https://www.supervote.org.uk/ and will have a deeper look later today.

    It’s a pity that our leadership does not give much prominence to this issue.

    Increasingly people sense that there is something very amiss with our so-called democracy. Campaigning for fair votes is itself vote-winning.

  • George Thomas 15th Mar '23 - 1:49pm

    In my opinion, the risk of people feeling their votes don’t matter isn’t just apathy because a top down approach to politics leads to a feeling that voters are being ignored, rising frustrations and increases openness to more extreme theories online.

    An increase in feelings of being excluded and generally low levels of critical thinking in the UK is common thread behind many a baffling phenomena in recent times.

    There is a risk that changing the system so it swings back to a bottom up approach and those more extreme theories online will direct where local politicians take us.

  • Keith Sharp 15th Mar '23 - 6:29pm

    A welcome intervention from David. Fair, Equal Votes is re-surfacing as an important policy – Ed Davey made two speeches late last year which featured voting reform as a key trigger for ‘fixing our broken politics’. We need to work reform into our overall narrative and pitch, while recognising it won’t be the lead policy ‘on the doorstep’.

  • Mel Borthwaite 15th Mar '23 - 6:40pm

    Single Transferable Vote usually works well for local government elections in Scotland though the West Dunbartonshire Council election result in 2022 saw Labour win 12 of the 22 councillors with just 41.9% of the vote while the SNP won 9 councillors with 42.6% of the vote – a majority Labour council but the SNP won more votes!

  • David Le Grice 15th Mar '23 - 9:00pm

    @Mel Borthwaite
    Scotland only uses a semi proportional form of STV with wards limited to three or four councillors as opposed to the five or six that would be needed to deliver a proportional result. A party can for instance win two thirds of the seats in a three seat ward with a vote share in the high forties.

  • Michael Cole 15th Mar '23 - 9:59pm

    @ Keith Sharp 15th Mar ’23 – 6:29pm:

    Yes. An electoral system of Fair Votes doesn’t solve anything of itself; but it is the ‘sine qua non’ for real progress.

    Most people forget the occasional reference to electoral reform; it doesn’t really register. They believe, perhaps understandably, that it is an academic topic and does not affect their real lives.

    That is why you are quite right to stress that “We need to work reform into our overall narrative and pitch, while recognising it won’t be the lead policy ‘on the doorstep’.”

  • Mel Borthwaite 15th Mar '23 - 11:35pm

    @David Le Grice
    “Scotland only uses a semi proportional form of STV with wards limited to three or four councillors…”
    Actually, that is no longer the case. The most recent boundary reviews have allowed wards to vary from single member (in the case of an island) to multi-member with up to 5 councillors. Check out the 2022 election result for North Ayrshire.

  • Peter Davies 16th Mar '23 - 8:11am

    “Labour win 12 of the 22 councillors with just 41.9% of the vote while the SNP won 9 councillors with 42.6% of the vote – a majority Labour council but the SNP won more votes!” Presumably we are talking only about first preference votes. It is likely that the majority of the population would prefer a Labour led council to an SNP led one. They can show that with a second preference. The system favours parties willing to reach out across tribal lines against Marmite parties like the SNP (or in England the Tories).

  • Michael Cole 16th Mar '23 - 2:12pm

    @Keith Sharp 16th Mar ’23 – 11:24am:

    Very glad to hear that LDER “is pushing aggressively down this track.”

    I shall not be in York but wish you all the very best with your meetings.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Mar '23 - 2:58pm

    What’s needed is a simple metric that shows the unfairness of our present electoral system of FPTP. This could then be used by the media, us and anyone else to consitently show that our electoral system needs changing.

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