Skip to main content

Regardless of whether you support a majoritarian or proportional electoral system for the House of Commons, one has to remember that (regardless of importance), the House of Commons isn’t the only body we elect. With the exception of European Parliament elections, these ‘second order elections’ are all sub-national, electing a variety of bodies and officials: councils, mayors, assemblies etc. This piece will focus on council elections in England and Wales, which are conducted under a combination of first past the post (FPTP) and plurality-at-large.

Supporter of proportional representation across the board though I am, even if you support a majoritarian electoral system in the Commons, I hope to make the case here for why you should still support electing local councils under a proportional electoral system (specifically, the single transferable vote (STV)).

STV elects councillors to multi-member constituencies. Voters rank the candidates from their most preferred to their least preferred, and candidates who meet a certain quota of votes are elected, with votes over the quota being transferred to their next most preferred candidate, and with the least popular candidates being sequentially eliminated, and their votes transferred until all the candidates are selected.

When talking about FPTP for Westminster elections, the principle advantage claimed by its supporters is that it creates strong, accountable government that gives voters a clear choice between the government and the opposition. However, the way that voters are distributed across the country means that majoritarian systems like FPTP and plurality-at-large end up accomplishing the exact opposite on the local level due to their tendency to produce a high number of safe seats, many of which go uncontested.

The 2019 local elections in England saw 300 council seats allocated to a party before any votes were cast due to the phenomenon of uncontested and undercontested seats. This number comprises 3.4% of all council seats that were up for election in 2019, but doesn’t take into account the number of safe seats which were only nominally contested. The figures are even worse in Wales, where in 2017, 7.3% of all council seats were uncontested. By contrast, in the 2017 local elections in Scotland (which elects its local councils through STV), only 3 wards stood uncontested (Northern Ireland had no uncontested wards at all), because no votes are wasted. This fact, in combination with the mechanics of STV encouraging intra-party as well as inter-party competition, means that there isn’t really such thing as a safe seat under STV – you hold your seat by being popular amongst your constituents.

The fact that local areas are increasingly uncompetitive, means that all too often, local authorities are not just won, but consistently dominated by a single party, especially given that majoritarian electoral systems tend to amplify the seat share of the largest party even more.  This effect entirely undermines any notion of electoral competition at the local level, which has the knock-on effect that, since there is often no real opposition to speak of, local government ends up not being accountable, and voters don’t have any clear choice. The net result is perpetual political control by a single party, with no recourse to throw the rascals out.

To be sure, STV won’t solve all of this – the state of political geography will remain, independent of the local electoral system. Places like Manchester, which vote by a majority for one party will still see single party administrations, but you wouldn’t see utter one party domination, like the 97% of seats held by Labour in Manchester in 2019. Nonetheless, introducing real electoral competition would allow for political accountability of local councils by giving voters an actual choice, and by ensuring the presence of a political opposition, which too many councils are so desperately lacking.

This wouldn’t be an unprecedented change; Scotland has used STV to elect councils since 2007, and all non-Westminster elections in Northern Ireland are conducted under STV. It’s clearly not too complicated for British voters to grasp; we should be confident in our ability to rank our most favourite candidates to our least, and in doing so, improve our local democracy.

Oliver Maddison is currently undertaking a week’s work experience at Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.