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
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The Independent Online

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