Voting reform for local elections

By Rob Telford, Green councillor for Ashley ward, Bristol

UK Voting

The great democratic hope for General Election 2015

For decades, the UK has essentially been a two-party system, with third parties (whether Liberal/SDP/Lib Dem, SNP/Plaid, Green, BNP or UKIP) not being able to gain enough votes to overhaul the two largest parties (Labour and Conservative) at any General Election.

At the same time, fewer and fewer people are choosing to cast their votes for the two largest parties. In 1951, 96.8 per cent of people voted for either Labour or Conservative. In 2010, it was 65.1 per cent of people. Over a third of people no longer choose to support the two largest parties, and yet first past the post – a system designed for two-party systems – still remains and leaves many people effectively disenfranchised.

There are a number of problems with this – and obvious solutions. Firstly, many people vote but their votes aren’t effective in electing anyone. In 2010, 15.7 million people cast votes for candidates that weren’t elected or didn’t require their vote to win. That’s 53 per cent of the electorate who did not get any say in who makes decisions for them. This gives an obvious disincentive to vote. A preferential voting system (where a person can rank their candidates in order of preference) would make this an incredibly rare occurrence and give a far greater number of people buy-in to the political system.

Furthermore, many MPs find themselves in safe seats. This is the case in almost 400 of the 650 seats that are contested. Majorities can be so large that the non-sitting political parties do not see any reason to campaign. It can lead to a lack of accountability, the feeling that certain MPs have “jobs for life” and disincentivises smaller parties from contesting the seat at all. Again, this would be solved by a preferential system where the best placed second-placed candidate would fare much better and kickstart many more contests in previously safe seats.

Finally, the largest party (whoever that is) often has an inflated parliamentary majority. This is the overall effect of first past the post. In 2005, Labour won 55.2 per cent of the seats with only 35.2 per cent of the votes. Similarly, in 1992, the Conservatives won 51.7 per cent of the seats with only 41.9 per cent of the votes. This discrepancy is simply a huge flaw and often leaves third and smaller parties with a lower percentage of seats than the percentage of the vote they gained. To remedy this, we would need a top-up system whereby people can choose a party from a list that then has members allocated on the basis of their percentage share of the vote.

In reality, General Election turnout remains pretty high in the UK. After a blip in 2001 (only 59.1 per cent), General Election turnout has again begun to increase up to 2010. It may not be in the mid- to high-70s as in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is not the genuine cause for concern.

The real concern is for local elections, where only about 30 per cent turnout. The crucial campaign in the next 14 months ahead of General Election 2015 will be for the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to commit in their respective manifestoes to introducing a form of proportional representation for all local elections (most likely the single transferable vote).

This simple first step would potentially reinvigorate local democracy and, if well-publicised, increase turnout greatly. It is also in ALL political parties’ self-interest. It would give the two largest parties a foothold in areas of the country where they currently have no base of councillors, and give third and smaller parties the chance to compete in areas where they may be many people’s first preference – were it not for the knowledge that only the current two top options can win.

Voting reform will never be the sexiest subject, but it holds out the best hope we have to increase the public’s buy-in to the electoral system and give voters genuine choice in who represents them at each level of government.

Rob Telford is a councillor in Bristol and the Green Party’s national spokesperson on democratic reform. He runs the Twitter feed @VotingReform as a campaign calling for Labour to put PR in their 2015 General Election manifesto. He also tweets at @PurpleGreenRob.

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