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

Share
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

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project