Vernon Bogdanor: The lack of democracy in our local elections

In nearly 10 per cent of councils holding elections last year, a fifth or more wards wereuncontested

Related Topics

Campaigning has now begun for this year's local elections; last Friday was the deadline for nominations in England and Wales. Gordon Brown wants us to participate more. Encouraging us to vote in local elections would be a good place to start, since fewer than two in five of us can be bothered to do so, and turnout levels are the lowest in Western Europe. Many of us, however, find ourselves disfranchised since we live in uncontested wards. Last year, in 30 out of the 312 English councils holding elections – nearly 10 per cent of the total – 20 per cent or more of the wards were uncontested.

In many other English local authority areas, there seems little point in voting, since the outcome under the first-past-the-post system is a pre-ordained clean sweep, with one party gaining nearly all the seats on the council, even though its vote does not approach anywhere near to 100 per cent. The only parliamentary clean sweep in the 20th century occurred in 1931. But clean sweeps occur quite regularly in local government.

In East Hertfordshire, for example, the Conservatives last year won 84 per cent of the seats on the council for just 47 per cent of the vote. Labour, with 11 per cent, won no seats at all, though the Liberal Democrats and the Independents, each with eight per cent, did secure representation. Six wards, all with Conservative candidates, were uncontested. In Tunbridge Wells, the Tories won all the seats on 58 per cent of the vote; 42 per cent of the voters were entirely unrepresented. In Leicester, by contrast, Labour benefited, gaining 70 per cent of the seats on just 39 per cent of the vote. In Bolsover, too, Labour benefited, gaining 75 per cent of the seats on 50 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives did not put up any candidates at all, and so their supporters were in effect disfranchised. Such outcomes cannot be good for democracy. To be effective, governments need a lively opposition to keep them on their toes and scrutinise what they are doing. One-party dominance, by contrast, means that there is no way to check the dominance of the party machine. A permanent one-party local authority is almost as offensive as a permanent one-party state.

In 15 out of the 312 English local authorities, there was a different type of distortion – the party with the most votes failed to win the most seats, so that voters were not given the result for which they asked. Five of these wrong winners occurred in the metropolitan boroughs. In Birmingham, Labour won the most votes but lost seats, and the Conservatives became the largest party on the council.

The distortions of first-past-the-post are by no means random. The clean sweep tends to benefit the largest party, the Conservatives in rural areas, Labour in the cities.

The system thus exaggerates social and geographical divisions, making England appear more divided than in fact it is. No wonder that Labour sometimes finds it difficult to understand the problems of rural areas, while the Tories are insufficiently aware of the difficulties of the inner cities.

Scotland, where the single transferable vote method of proportional representation was used for the first time last year, offers a striking contrast. In 2003, Labour won 71 of the 79 seats in Glasgow on just 48 per cent of the vote, and won Edinburgh despite winning less than 28 per cent of the vote.

In Renfrewshire, the SNP won control of the council despite being outpolled by Labour. No such anomalies occurred in 2007, and there were no uncontested seats at all. 74 per cent of first preference votes helped to elect a councillor, as compared to 52 per cent in 2003. There was a 9.5 per cent increase in valid votes cast. The local elections in Scotland, therefore, helped to produce genuinely representative local government. The first-past-the-post system reflects the old world of tribal politics where voters divided themselves into two camps – Labour and Conservative – and rarely switched allegiances. In today's more sophisticated world, voters naturally seek wider choices. We badly need an electoral system able to reflect these choices.

It is perhaps for the people themselves and not for government to decide on the electoral system. Under the Local Government Act 2000, five per cent of registered electors in every local authority area were given the power to secure a referendum on whether their authority should have a directly-elected mayor. But, if local electors can decide whether to have a mayor, why should they not also have the power to decide the voting system for their authority? Representative local government is likely to yield better local government; and, when every vote counts, perhaps we will all start to participate in local elections.

The writer is Professor of Government at Oxford University and a Vice-President of the Electoral Reform Society

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home