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29 April

We need electoral reform to end Britain’s rotten boroughs

There is little incentive to serve communities properly when some local authorities have no political opposition.

By Mathieu Vaillancourt

There is a general sense of dissatisfaction with local councils; it has become the norm to speak breathlessly of how poor they are. Newspaper reports abound about infighting, scandal and incompetence – which many feel is due to perpetual rule by the same parties.

One challenge with the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system in local elections is that in some English councils there is lacklustre opposition, or even none – which is not great for democracy. Having a system that encourages single-party rule tends to create a vicious circle of disenfranchisement, leaving little room for opposition parties to put resources into elections in which they have little chance of winning seats. Artificially inflated majorities are the result, particularly in London borough wards, where people have as many votes as there are council seats.

Take the borough of Newham in east London, for example. It has elected Labour councillors into every seat of every ward since 2010. In 2014, Labour won “only” 59 per cent of the popular vote but 100 per cent of the seats. Manchester has a similar issue: in 2019, 32 out of 33 seats that were up for re-election went to Labour despite the party winning “only” 58 per cent of the popular vote.

What is the solution to this? It is notable that England and Wales use the first-past-the-post electoral system, with either one or multiple candidates elected by wards. But Scotland and Northern Ireland use the single transferable vote, in which people in a given ward rank their favourite candidates in order, leaving every electoral district with multiple councillors elected from different parties. While such a system would come with its risks in national elections, it can be put to great use at a local level.

In Scotland as in Northern Ireland, local politics has a wholly different feel – it’s very difficult for any party to have an overall majority in any local council, barring a huge election win and they have enough candidates per district. Most of the local authorities in Scotland are in eternal “no overall control” mode – and ragtag coalitions between almost every major party and independents are necessary. This is a good thing for the diversity of parties. Especially in rural Scotland, independent candidates fiercely attached to their wards can play a big role in some parts of Scotland by being kingmakers in coalitions. Scottish local elections used to be uncompetitive in Glasgow, with Labour often winning a near-totality of seats. Then in 2007, the electoral system changed to something more proportional, leading to Labour’s loss of Glasgow to the SNP in 2017.

It’s not likely that English or Welsh local government elections will switch to the Scottish/Northern Irish systems any time soon – but the long-term absence of effective opposition in some local authorities is worrying. The single, transferable vote system has not resolved every issue in Scotland, but at least it has provided political opposition. If such a move were to consign rotten boroughs to history, perhaps it would be wise for regional authorities in England and Wales to make that change sooner rather than later.

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