What’s wrong with the voting system at local elections?

Local elections in England use the same outdated, unfair voting system as Westminster. The councils we get don’t reflect the way we vote. This leaves millions of voters across the country without a voice on their local councils. At every election, it hands parties control of councils without a majority of the vote. This affects every party: at this year’s local elections Labour were handed the keys to the town hall in Sheffield, along with two thirds of the seats, despite winning less than half of the votes. In Eastleigh, the Liberal Democrats won 13 out of 15 seats up for grabs on just 46% of the vote. In Tunbridge Wells the Conservatives pulled off a similar sweep, winning 13 out of 16 seats on just under half the vote.

At its worst, our electoral system creates “one-party states” where there is no effective opposition - Knowsley Council had no opposition at all for four years! Tens of thousands of people are denied a vote at all when their councillor is elected unopposed.

The way we elect our councilors is broken. The seats don’t match the votes. We want every vote to count at local elections.

Why is the voting system at local elections important?

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 councilors matters. The voting system distorts results, weakens opposition on councils and undermines accountability. Councils should reflect the way local communities vote.

What do you mean by “a fairer voting system”?

There are many ways of defining a fairer voting system, but one of the keys to fairness is how proportional the system is - do the results match the way people vote?

There are several examples of more proportional voting systems across the UK. This year, elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London were all run using fairer voting systems.

Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly use the Single Transferable Vote (STV), where voters rank the candidates to be elected to six-member constituencies. STV is also used for local elections in Scotland. Since its introduction back in 2007, uncontested seats have vanished, voters have more than double the number of candidates to choose from for each seat, and more voters see their first choice elected.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly use the Additional Member System (AMS). This system gives voters two votes, one for a candidate for a constituency, and one for a party. Once the constituency results are calculated, the other votes are counted and parties are awarded “top-up” seats to bring the result closer to the proportion of the votes their party has won.

Both of these types of voting system are significantly more proportional than first-past-the-post, our current system

Why do you think local councils should be given the right to adopt a fairer voting system?

We’ve proposed that local councils be given the right 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, 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 referendum on the Alternative Vote 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 want ordinary people to be involved in democratising our political system. That means that councils should be required to involve voters in any decision to change the voting system. There are already ways for councils and local communities to work together to demand more power for central government.

Why are you focusing on local elections rather than Westminster?

We want votes to count at all elections. We’re working behind the scenes on building support for a fairer voting system for electing MPs, but we just couldn’t ignore the biggest round of elections this side of 2020. We want as many people to see what a fairer voting system could do for their local community so that we can build a broad coalition in support of change at Westminster.