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Let’s Reform Local Elections

Let’s Reform Local Elections

"While reform of the House of Commons is often regarded as the Holy Grail for reformers, this only affects 650 seats once every four or five years. Yet there are 22,736 district level seats contested, mostly using First Past The Post, with local elections being held every year somewhere in the country.

Proportional representation is generally only discussed for higher levels of Government, but the same principles should apply at a local level too. The problems caused by FPTP are actually worse at local level than they are nationally because of the common use of multi-member wards.

To illustrate this point, let's look at my local patch; North Somerset. All 61 of the seats were up for grabs this month. The Conservatives received 44.4% of the vote, a strong minority, but won 69% of the seats (42). In contrast, the Labour party received 20% of the vote but just 8% of the seats (5).

This now means that the Tories can enact anything they like without opposition, despite only having minority support.

At the heart of this problem is the combination of multi-member wards using FPTP. In theory this would work if people were voting for the candidates as 'individuals', but the reality is that the majority of people vote by party and thus cast two or three votes for their party of choice. Some voters will support an independent candidate as well as party candidates, but it is rare for people to share their votes between parties. The result is blocks of councillors from one party.

In North Somerset we have 15 wards with either two or three councillors. Of those, 12 wards elected all of their councillors from a single party.

Take the Weston-super-Mare South Worle ward as an example. The Conservatives received 39.3% of the vote, but all three of the councillors. The Lib Dems had 32% support (just a few percent less) but no seats. Labour didn’t win any seats either, despite having 28.7% of the vote. Clearly the majority wanted 'left wing' councillors, but instead have three 'right wing' councillors.

This has to change.

Given that we already use multi-member wards, the most obvious solution is to introduce the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.

STV tries to proportionally distribute the seats amongst the most popular candidates. For single-member wards, it would effectively work like the Alternative Vote system (that we just rejected in the referendum!).

While STV would be a poor reform choice for General Elections or for the House of Lords, in my opinion, it is clearly a strong choice for local elections. Firstly, we know it works; it is already used in Scotland and Northern Ireland for local elections. Secondly, it would break up the block votes and distribute the seats more evenly. Finally, it would encourage people to look at their candidates more as individuals than simply party representatives."

Full article and comments:

written by Anthony Butcher

Anthony is one of the Bristol group founders and ran his own excellent referendum blog. He now writes at at