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FEATURES - LICENCE TO ROAM

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The 11 'list' members elected to the London Assembly in 2000 were the first in Britain to take office without repre...
The 11 'list' members elected to the London Assembly in 2000 were the first in Britain to take office without representing a ward. Joe Gill asks how they have found the experience

Ask Londoners what they know about the elections for their mayor and assembly and the most politically astute may tell you they involved proportional representation, the rest that Ken Livingstone won.

Ask them to explain the top-up or additional member system and you will almost certainly draw a blank.

The 2000 London Assembly elections were inevitably dominated by Mr Livingstone's triumph, but other issues arose about the low turnout and the complexity of the voting system. Voters had to tick four boxes - two for mayor (first and second choice), one for the constituency member and one for an additional member from the party lists. Enthusiasts for the system remarked on how minority parties did well through PR, with the Greens and Lib Dems taking seven of the 12 additional member seats.

But how does being a top-up member compare with the traditional ward-based representative? Eric Ollerenshaw, the Tories' only additional member in the assembly, told LGC at the time that his election was the best moment of his political career. Two years later he sticks by that assessment, but with some reservations.

'The whole system is bemusing. I was the only one who lost on the first [constituency] count and won on the other. In one sense, being the old Tory that I am, I believe the constituency system is a lot better for people. By actually giving them a direct representative it keeps your feet on the ground. But it was not our system, it is just the one we got elected on.'

But Mr Ollerenshaw says that being a list member has not prevented him from having lively and direct contact with London's voters. 'I get e-mails and correspondence all the time. I have no idea if other list members get the same response so I wouldn't know if it is down to me or not.'

Gynette Arnold, one of Labour's additional members, won her seat in a peculiar twist of fate when Bernie Grant, then MP for Tottenham North, died in April 2000. As second on the Labour list she stepped into David Lammy's shoes after he was nominated as Labour's candidate in the Tottenham by-election and won.

'I was waiting on the night of the [GLA] election, knowing that the higher the [Labour] count was, the higher the chance of an additional member coming through. For me as a democrat it is important because it means everyone's vote matters. I suppose this is heresy [for a Labour party member] but it is good for the smaller parties. The Greens and Liberal Democrats had to get 5% in order to win seats and they ended up with a majority of the additional seats.'

The difference between the additional member system and the one introduced for elections in Scotland, Wales and to the European Parliament is that the list is not closed, so voters are not lumped with a party list.

For Ms Arnold this is more important than the complexity, although engaging with voters is crucial. 'Yes, it is more complex, but we are looking for systems that mean people's votes matter.'

An anonymous Labour staffer at the GLA was more critical of the assembly elections. 'I thought it was the worst system. New regional government is supposed to be about new ways of engaging with people - the system is overly complex, not easily understandable and ultimately puts people off.'

The Greens and Lib Dems won three and four members, respectively, on the list system and not surprisingly they are broadly in favour. Lib Dem assembly member and chair Sally Hamwee says: 'I do think that political representation is much more easily dealt with through the additional member system. As a constituency member you have more direct engagement with an electorate, although the constituencies are so large that it can never be the same as a borough councillor or parish councillor. I think [the assembly] is not working badly and I support it in slightly cautious terms. '

Baroness Hamwee, who as well as being a peer, was previously a councillor in Richmond LBC, does worry about the clash between local and regional democracy. 'The constitutional relationship is really a quite awkward one - what is your relationship with councils? There are two important principles which are not necessarily compatible. One is very direct local representation and the other is political representation of the votes of the electorate.'

As for any immediate reform of London's representative chamber, she is doubtful. '[At the GLA] we only have a scrutiny role except on the budget. It is pretty unlikely that the government is going to tweak the structure at this early stage - this is very much an executive/scrutiny split. We have a mayor who has got a lot of power. He is on his own in terms of policy decisions and that is unhealthy.'

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