Key activists within the Labour movement have been concerned about the party’s performance in the south of England for many years now. The facts are stark: in the last full set of elections in 2011, there were 69 district and unitary authorities which did not elect a single Labour councillor and most of these were concentrated in the south.
The party has invested considerable energy in renewing itself – from experimenting with new models of community organisation in order to widen its appeal, to seeking to transform its relationship with affiliated union members. But there is a danger that these efforts fail to reach those parts of the country which lack even a threadbare Labour activist base. How can local Labour parties which have no elected representatives hope to increase membership when their organisational resources are so thin on the ground?
There may be a solution to Labour’s southern problem: the introduction of a fairer voting system for local elections. The existence of 69 “electoral deserts” suggests that Labour commands almost no support in these places. Yet it is the first-past-the-post voting system, and not the party’s actual vote share, which is making these areas Labour-free. For instance, in Castle Point in Essex, the party commands over a quarter of the vote yet doesn’t receive a single councillor in return. In Lewes in Sussex, Labour won 13.5 per cent of the vote but again received no councillors.
A new report by the Electoral Reform Society, Towards One Nation, shows that if England and Wales were to use the system currently in place for local elections in Scotland (i.e. the Single Transferable Vote), 27 of these 69 electoral deserts would return Labour councillors. And if this were to happen, the party could expect a virtuous circle to kick in: more councillors equates to more activists, which leads to more resources for membership recruitment, which in turn leads to more support, and so on. Suddenly, Labour’s southern problem would not look so daunting.
Of course, the corollary is that under a more proportional local electoral system there will be more Conservative councillors in places currently dominated by Labour, particularly northern metropolitan areas. But this is not necessarily such bad news for the party. The report shows how Labour councils do better at holding on to power when they share it with a healthy opposition. Of the 39 councils which had Labour “super-majorities” (90 per cent or more Labour) in the mid-1990s, 21 have been lost at some point. Many of these losses occurred precisely because there was no effective opposition holding local government to account. Without anyone to push back against, strong local parties often (though not always) end up fracturing through internal wrangling.
An earlier report, Northern Blues, showed how the Conservatives have just nine councillors across ten northern local authorities, and that a fairer voting system could give them seven times this number. But that should not alarm Labour activists in Warrington, Wigan and Newcastle – it may be that a healthier opposition, in line with the voters’ wishes, is exactly what Labour needs if it is to maintain control over its strongholds.
After the last election, when Labour won only ten of 197 parliamentary seats in the south outside London, Harriet Harman acknowledged the challenge when she said: “We are building from a low base, or no base, in some areas”. Perhaps Labour figures most concerned about the party’s performance in the south should stop analysing the scale of southern discomfort and consider making a fairer electoral system – which gives people the representation they vote for – part of the solution.
Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society