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ANALYSIS - IT'S A LONG ROAD TO A HEALTHY DEMOCRACY

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>> 2004 poll attracted just 41% turnout...
>> 2004 poll attracted just 41% turnout

>> Calls for single transferable voting system to be adopted in England

>> Scotland testing new electoral system

By Nick Golding

Local democracy's health is failing, with most people shunning council elections. Small wonder then that many believe only radical surgery, in the form of a new voting system, can save it.

Just 41% of the population voted in the metropolitan borough and county council elections in 2004. A mere 32% of people turned out in the last London elections two years earlier.

So grave is local democracy's illness that there has been no set of elections in which turnout has exceeded 50% in the past 30 years, with the exception of occasions when a general election has been held on the same day.

Expectations are not high of a sudden surge of interest this year. Anecdotal evidence suggests fewer activists are pressing the flesh than in previous contests while recent attention on the three main party leaders has hardly centred on their local election activity.

While prime minister Tony Blair has been sweating over NHS woes, media interest in Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell has centred around the sale of his Jaguar and Conservative leader David Cameron has swanned off to Svalbard to examine glaciers before they retreat forever.

Many are conducting the post mortem already, believing it is now time to resurrect local democracy before it also melts away.

Another poor turnout should act as a fillip for the advocates of electoral reform. They have long complained that much of the electorate were abandoning the polling booths in the knowledge that their preferred candidates stood little chance of securing power.

Although it is the Liberal Democrats who have traditionally complained they are served ill by the electoral system, disproportionately few Conservatives are elected in inner cities and Labour is under-represented in the shires.

And the minority parties, including the Greens, are even more unfairly represented - although most advocates of the current system warn change will lead to a surge in British National Party seats.

The Power Inquiry into revitalising British democracy, which reported in February, warned that millions of people were turning away from politics because they thought it made little difference to their lives.

The inquiry called for a shift in power from central to local government and a reformed electoral system to give smaller parties and independent candidates greater chance of success.

Inquiry director Pam Giddy recommended 'an electoral system that would better represent the feelings of people. That would be proportional representation'.

She continued: 'With regard to the local system, the political parties don't seem to have many people on the ground. People are very concerned about their locality and they want to be politically active but councils are the layer of government that's trusted least.'

The inquiry endorses the single transferable vote electoral system as a means of ensuring representation of a greater range of parties, encouraging more people to participate in the political process.

And, with such a system likely to end situations where one party can guarantee winning vast swathes of a seats, the inquiry believes it would keep parties on their toes by encouraging them to remain active between elections.

Those in power have not so far been receptive. With either Labour or the Tories governing alone since World War II, the government of the day has never felt it in its interest to bring in proportional representation for Westminster elections. Until recent years, the two parties' domination of local government meant they would keep control of more councils by retaining the status quo.

But devolution has resulted in a Labour/Lib Dem coalition government in Scotland - and the Lib Dems' position secured the single transferable vote for Scottish local elections. The system will be implemented next year for the first time.

Although it will certainly lead to a more proportionate representation of parties in local government, the single transferable vote has certain drawbacks.

Under the system, much larger wards will be represented by three or four councillors, potentially lessening the link between the councillor and their locality. And some fear such a climate will increase the power of party's central machinery to select candidates, rather than more locally-based ward members making the choice.

Jim Wallace, the Lib Dem who as Scotland's deputy first minister encouraged the adoption of proportional representation, insists there is no reason to believe the new system will increase party power, however.

He tells LGC: 'The change to the electoral system should not alter the nature of individual parties - democratic parties should remain democratic, centralist ones are likely to remain centralist. However, the ability to express a preference among candidates for the same party will rest with the voters.'

Mr Wallace says the success of the new system will be gauged on turnout, greater engagement between the voters and politicians and the end of councils being run like 'one party states'.

'The result of STV is likely to be that few councils will be controlled by a single party. This will mean councillors, once elected, will have to find common ground and work together for the benefit of their communities,' he adds.

But in England there has been little enthusiasm for change. The Electoral Reform Society and other proponents are pinning their hopes on the new Scottish system stirring up debate south of the border.

Lewisham LBC's elected mayor Steve Bullock is in a minority in the Labour Party in openly backing reform, citing examples of unfairness such as the Conservatives within his own borough who won just two seats, despite gaining one quarter of the vote in 2002.

His council has twice asked ministers to allow it to pilot a new voting system but has been refused permission on both occasions.

'There's a significant number of people in Labour who think electoral reform is an important issue but that's to some extent been cooled by the size of our majorities over the past few elections,' he says.

If first-past-the-post remains in Labour's interests, it is hard to see any major reform taking place in the foreseeable future.

Change is likely to be restricted to measures to encourage more people to vote. All-postal voting was tried out last year but the alleged electoral fraud scandal in Birmingham, which led to ballot re-runs, undermined faith in the system.

Text message, telephone and internet voting have been tried but pilot schemes have not been successful enough to be implemented everywhere. This time around, experimentation has been restricted to allowing voting for an entire week before polling day in a select few councils.

Tom Hawthorn, the Electoral Commission's manager of electoral modernisation, says: 'Very clearly there's a lot more room for innovation. That innovation is going to come from technology suppliers who develop products and it needs to come from local government who are responsible for running elections.'

But even with innovation it is doubtful that interest in local elections will revive sufficiently. Poor turnouts undermine the government's vision of residents becoming truly engaged in local service provision.

Perhaps it is only by devolving more power to councils, giving those elected locally a greater say over residents' lives, that local democracy can be saved.

Electoral systems explained

First-past-the-post

In a three-member ward, voters put an X by the name of the three candidates they support most. The three candidates who win the greatest number of votes are elected.

Single transferable vote

Voters rank the candidates in a ward, putting a '1' beside the name of their first choice and a '2' for their second and so on.

If a candidate in a three-member ward receives one-third of the vote, they are automatically elected. The lowest-placed candidate drops out after the first count with their voters' second choice preferences reallocated to other candidates.

After each count the second choice preferences of the lowest placed candidate are reallocated. The process continues until all three seats have been won either by a candidate who passes the threshold of one-third of votes or by the highest-placed candidates.

Additional members system

Voters have two votes, one for a ward councillor, usually elected under first-past-the-post, and another from a council-wide top-up list. Seats on the top-up list are allocated in proportion to parties' overall vote in both elements of the election so if one party is under-represented in ward councillor seats, it will be compensated through extra top-up seats.

Voting reform cannot come soon enough, says Alex Folkes

If voters in Scotland can use a fair votes system to elect their councillors, how come this chance is denied to the rest of us?

Next year, electors in Scotland will join Northern Ireland in choosing their councillors by the single transferable vote. They will be asked to rank the candidates in order of preference and can therefore take account of factors such as gender, age and stance on non-party matters. The overall result is likely to be broadly proportional between the parties (and independent candidates) and will mean that most electors will have at least one councillor who they personally voted for.

To see why change is needed in the rest of the UK, we need only look at London, where the effects of the current voting system are particularly pernicious. Four local authorities saw the 'wrong winners' in 2002. That is, the party which gained control had fewer votes than its main competitor. In Croydon, this situation has persisted for the past three electoral cycles.

In addition, there are boroughs where a single party dominates the council chamber. Some will laud 'strong government'. But others will realise that you need a strong opposition in order to provide proper scrutiny.

While the absence of the Conservatives from Manchester or Labour from Richmond might not seem much of a problem for anybody outside those parties, it means that many tens of thousands of people may not feel properly represented.

We will be watching closely to see what the electors of Scotland make of their modern voting system next year. Already there are a few authorities, including Labour-led Lewisham and Lib Dem-led Cambridge, who would also like the chance to run fair vote elections.

Perhaps it is time for the government to extend the reach of electoral pilots from e-voting to fair voting.

Alex Folkes Press and campaigns officer, Electoral Reform Society

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