After our recent article looking at the scandal of uncontested elections, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society Katie Ghose got in touch to highlight just how endemic the problem is and offer one possible solution. Got to say, it sounds like a good idea to us...
Uncontested seats are a feature of our broken voting system
For thousands of people on May 7th, the local elections didn’t take place – not because it wasn’t an election year, but because only one person stood in their ward. When that happens, the result is a foregone conclusion: they’ve already won the seat well before polling day.
It’s a point Glen Ocsko raised in his blog recently, describing it as ‘scandalous’. It is. But it’s also in large part due to our broken voting system.
Our First Past the Post voting system destroys the incentive to stand for election in ‘safe’ seats, where other parties feel they have no chance of winning (even where they have significant support). And it means voters have no choice at the ballot box. That’s not democracy, in most people’s eyes.
Our analysis of this at the Electoral Reform Society showed that 55% of seats on Eden District council were uncontested on May 7th – with over half the council being unelected. On South Northamptonshire council, a third of seats went unchallenged. Both of these were an increase on the 2011 elections.
In South Staffordshire, in 29% of seats voters were left without any choice – well up from 6% in 2011. And in the Derbyshire Dales, nearly a quarter of council seats had only one candidate, again a significant increase compared to the last elections. This is a problem that’s getting worse. And quite simply it’s unacceptable. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Scotland used to suffer from the problem of uncontested seats. But this was eradicated by the introduction of Single Transferable Vote (STV) at local elections, a proportional voting system with larger multi-member wards and the ability to rank candidates. Today, all council seats in Scotland are regularly contested, giving voters a real choice at the ballot box.
Between 2011 and 2014 there were 382 uncontested council elections in England. That’s over 2.5 million people denied a vote. And in the 2014 local elections alone, 38,000 people were left voiceless because of uncontested seats. Scotland though, after introducing proportional representation, saw zero uncontested seats.
We know that Scotland going from 61 uncontested wards in 2003 under an unfair system to zero in 2007 and 2012 under a PR system was not a coincidence. More parties had a chance of winning (because the wards are multi-member), and ‘safe seats’ – where only one party stand a chance of being elected – disappeared entirely. And there wasn’t a similar decline in the rest of the UK; in fact, the problem appears to be getting worse.
This is about voters having more choice – and those choices all having a fair shout. The average number of candidates now standing in Scottish council elections is over 7 – compared to just over 3 under First Past the Post. When ‘wasted votes’ are a thing of the past, so are foregone conclusions.
We need to fix our broken electoral system, a system which denies millions of voters a say. Britain needs a fair way of voting, where seats match votes and where every election is a real contest – not a coronation.
We like a guest post and today’s is one based on cold hard research.
The topic is one that local authorities have long struggled with; that of equalities or more precisely how we, as the council, can use our role to make a real difference to the lives of those who are disadvantaged or discriminated against. This post looks at what can be done beyond what they describe as the ‘standard 6’ actions we all know and recognise.
So, without further ado enjoy today’s post from Joy Warmington from Brap (@JWmusesthis on the twitter); it provides good food for thought.
Here’s a quick question for you. For every £100 that a man working in Birmingham earns, how much do you think a woman earns? Ninety five pounds? Ninety pounds? Maybe as low as £85?
We’ll reveal the answer at the end, so while you’re mulling that here’s another one. The unemployment rate for White people in Birmingham is about 9%. What’s the rate for Black people? If you doubled 9%, try again. The answer is actually three times higher – 26%. The unemployment rate for Pakistani and Bangladeshi residents is similarly out of kilter, currently standing at 18%. But here’s the really interesting thing. Back in 2004 the White unemployment rate was 6% while the Black rate was 18% – again three times higher. Over the course of a decade, despite all its strategies and plans, the city was unable to reduce this stark inequality.
Why is this? Well, it’s not just Birmingham that’s been asking these questions. A number of cities – from Plymouth to Sheffield to York – have held fairness commissions in recent years to understand why entrenched inequalities persist. As useful and, in some cases, penetrating as these commissions have been they have tended to ignore the nuts and bolts of how public agencies ‘do’ equality – how they go about tackling discrimination, eradicating social patterns of disadvantage, and fulfilling their legislative equalities duties. This is a serious gap. Understanding why these approaches have failed may go some way to explain why serious inequalities continue.
New research providing a bird’s eye view of equalities practice down the decades shows that many ideas have been resistant change. Whereas society has changed greatly over the last 30 years, our equalities tools have remained remarkably similar. For example, in 1984 Birmingham City Council set up a Race Equality Unit with the aim of addressing institutional racism and improving access to council services. By 1989 the Unit had 31 staff, including race relations advisers in housing, education, and social services. The Unit’s annual report for that year shows its activities included training, monitoring uptake of services, helping different departments devise race equality schemes, improving access to services (mainly by translating information), and organising outreach events. If you were to include something about community development (helping local community groups to support disadvantaged people) these activities would all be part of the Standard Six – the half a dozen key actions that have dominated equality strategies and policies over the decades. They’re the things that crop up time and time again, regardless of the organisation’s sector or the demographics of its service users. Ideally, equality approaches would be dynamic – constantly evolving as we better understand what works. Unfortunately, this generally hasn’t been the case.
It has been well publicised in the post-Election media coverage that it took 3.9million votes to elect a single UKIP candidate to parliament. The Green party saw 1.14million people putting a cross next to their name in return for the same number of MPs, while even the average number of votes required to secure the post for SNP candidates was something like 27,000.
Do you know how many votes it took to elect a local councillor in Eden District Council in Cumbria this year? Zero. In fact, it took the same number of votes to see 21 candidates elected to that particular local council. 21 ‘elected representative’ positions effectively without any elections being required.
Eden District Council should not of course be seen as the only ones facing this issue; up and down the country hundreds of seats in places large and small offered no form of options in local elections. It is expected that well over the previous high of 3% of the 9000 seats up for grabs went uncontested. Local councillors, whichever colour rosette they wore, simply had to put their names forward once more and they were able to continue in their role with no questions asked.
Simply put, this is scandalous.
Local councillors in many respects have far more in the way of a direct influence over local life than most MPs will ever have. They have control over practical issues such as waste collection, street repairs and lighting, as well as less seen but just as vital services including (but very much not limited to) social services, youth provision, health and social care, planning and local employment. They work with people and for people from the cradle to the grave, with their decisions impacting on local residents, organisations and businesses on a daily basis.
MPs on the other hand are more removed from these day to day decisions. They may set the overall strategic direction and provide a degree of funding to make some of these things happen, but in terms of regular impact the majority of them have very little for the average citizen.
This election saw 66.1 per cent of the electorate casting their votes in the general election, the highest number in 18 years. Two out of every three people cast a vote in the national; contrast this with voter numbers in 2012, when an average of just 31.3% of the electorate put a tick in the box to decide who their local representative was, assuming there was actually a choice to be made.
That the media focus solely on national issues can hardly be blamed; they are national institutions (international in most cases) so of course they are going to focus on national issues. However, there is such a clear divide between national and local coverage that of course voters are going to have little encouragement to find out about local candidates when the presidential style debates are dominating the headlines. The less they know about them, the less likely they are to see that there is an issue and potentially do something about it.
This is leaving the same people in the same posts, making the same decisions and having little in the way of appropriate challenge other than from perhaps a small number of local writers, reporters or activists, and that’s just not good enough.
Effective opposition is absolutely vital in a healthy democracy. Without it we risk small personal fiefdoms developing, where a small cabal of individuals holds sway over every local decision, acting with impunity and with no fear of reproach. Whether the opposition is in the right or not is in many respects irrelevant; the mere act of challenge goes towards ensuring that no short cuts are made, nor processes foregone for convenience’s sake.
An unelected individual rarely has any need for proving both competence and mandate. An incompetent or ineffective individual with opposition will be voted out of office should a viable alternative be in place; with no alternative they are able to continue as before, potentially making the same mistakes to the detriment of local people for years at a time.
Add to that the fact that they will not have to deliver what local people actually need, only their own impressions of what this might be, and you are left with an unhealthy system ripe for abuse. Usually a stock response to people who don’t like what their representative is doing is to simply reply “vote them out!”; when this option is removed, what further recourse is there?
Of course, there are a number of reasons why this situation has been allowed to arise, primarily (though not exclusively) the difficulty of finding interested and capable individuals to put themselves forward for elections. Too often the perceived glamour of parliament draws the politically interested to it like moths to a flame; none of them look towards the moonlight that is local government as it is deemed the lesser of the two roles.
Parties too are at fault. All too often decisions are made that if a seat or council control is unwinnable that they won’t bother to contest. Yes, this saves money which can perhaps be spent elsewhere, but at the same time it undermines the very fabric on which representative democracy is built upon. National parties simply must start taking local elections seriously if they are to actually be able to engage with and understand the hopes, fears, wants and needs of real people.
To address this two things must happen. Firstly, local elections need to introduce something called for often and loudly by many for a number of years: a ‘none of the above’ option. Whilst this wouldn’t introduce active challenge, it would certainly give voters the opportunity to remove those candidates who simply were not deemed up to the job. This would also give significant data to be analysed and assessed ahead of this rolling out to national and other elections.
Secondly, no party should be able to put forward a candidate for a parliamentary seat unless it also actively puts forward candidates for each of an area’s local elections. This is the only way to demonstrate that they are actually in touch with local people and able to understand what is needed to represent them. Of course not all councils should be run by one or other of the national parties – there are some excellent independent or local party councillors out there – but it does ensure that competition will always be in place.
This may go a long way to reconnecting party candidates to communities, as well as enabling local people to in return connect with them. It reinforces the importance of local democracy and puts the local level firmly back in place as the foundation upon which all other elective representation is based.
Despite a renewed level of interest and dialogue about national democracy, our system is threatened at its core; if we don’t act now, the gap between people and their representatives will continue to grow and we will never see the best that local democracy can offer in every locality.