Why fair votes matter at local elections

We want to make votes count at every election. We were part of the coalition that assembled five party leaders and nearly half a million signatures behind fairer votes after last year’s spectacularly disproportionate result. But reforming our voting system shouldn’t stop at Westminster. Here’s why fair votes matter at local elections.

Last week, the UK went to the polls in the biggest round of elections we’ll see before 2020. Thursday’s results clearly showed the difference a fair voting system makes. Local elections in England were the only contests which used an outdated, unfair system. We saw millions of people denied a strong voice on their council. In Sheffield, Labour were handed the keys to the town hall and over two thirds of the seats on the council despite winning only 44% of the vote. In Scotland, with a fairer electoral system, the SNP failed to win a majority with roughly the same chunk of the vote. We want the seats to match the votes at local elections as well.

Local government matters. Local councils may not be as glamorous as Westminster, but their work affects our everyday lives. They run schools, local services, housing, planning and manage a whole host of other boring but necessary functions. That’s why how we vote for our local councillors matters. The voting system distorts results, weakens opposition on councils and undermines accountability. Millions of people live in areas without effective opposition on the council thanks to our electoral system. You only have to look at Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs page to see what a lack of democratic accountability can do.

We’ve proposed that local councils be given the power to adopt a fairer voting system, rather than demand that central government introduce a fairer voting system across England. Convincing central government to change the voting system for local elections worked very successfully in Scotland. After years of campaigning by FairShare, building a large cross party coalition, the Liberal Democrats made introducing a proportional system a demand of entering a coalition with Labour back in 2007. And just like that, Scotland had fairer votes for local elections.

We see a similar campaign gathering pace in Wales, but the political context in England is very different. We have a government elected on a manifesto commitment not to change the voting system at Westminster, with the AV referendum in the back of their minds. Yet that same government is pushing forward with a big shake-up of local government in England. Ministers constantly talk about giving power back to local communities with elected mayors and devolution deals. So we’re taking them seriously, and challenging George Osborne to make fairer votes at local elections part of the debate on empowering local communities.

We’re backing fairer votes at local elections because we want ordinary people to be involved in democratising our political system. There are already ways for councils and local communities to work together to demand more power for central government.

It’s true that giving local councils the right to adopt a fairer voting system wouldn’t change things overnight. Councils could adopt different systems at different paces, and there’s no guarantee that the councils worst affected by our current system would change at all. We would need to build support for change across the country and across the political spectrum. We are already gathering support from independent councillors in local government - check out our joint letter in the Sunday Times. The more people who see what fairer votes can do for their community, the stronger the support will be for making votes count at every election.