“Local elections: How voters in England were cheated by a broken voting system”

“Local democracy in England and Wales has long been under strain – with contests often seeing dismally low turnout, or indeed no contest taking place at all. But new research from the ERS adds fresh cause for concern.

There’s a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ for local elections in England, with the most detailed analysis of May’s elections in England yet revealing widespread disproportionality and absurd ‘wrong winner’ results.

In analysis published to mark this week’s 15 year anniversary of the introduction of proportional representation for Scottish local elections, we’ve highlighted a stark gap between the fairness of representation in Scotland and England.

In 115 English councils this May, a single party won over half the council seats up for election, despite getting fewer than half the votes in the area. This represents nearly half of all councils (46%) where local elections took place in England this year. In the most extreme case the Conservative Party took all of the seats up for election on Havant Council with just 43.9% of the vote.

Yet in the Scottish local elections in 2017 – conducted using the fairer Single Transferable Vote system – no council saw a party get more than half the seats with fewer than half the first preference votes. In other words, you only get a majority if you have majority support.

There are many other benefits to proportional representation. In many cases under First Past the Post, single-seat wards become ‘no go’ areas for other parties: the same person gets in every time, even in other parties have significant levels of support. That creates an incentive for parties to ignore areas all together and focus on ‘winnable’ seats. Voters lose out, denied a real choice.

In 2003, at the last Scottish local elections held under First Past the Post, 61 wards (5% of the total) were totally uncontested: there was only one candidate running.

In 2017 – having switched to proportional representation – there were just three uncontested wards in the whole of Scotland. Compare that with the broken winner-takes-all system in Wales where in 2017, 10.4% of Welsh council wards were uncontested.

In addition, in 17 English councils this May, the party with the largest number of votes did not secure the most seats creating ‘wrong winner’ results – a damning indictment of England’s woefully out-dated voting system.

As ERS Director of Research Dr Jess Garland noted, our analysis shows how our broken electoral system is distorting local election results. First Past the Post is delivering skewed results in over a hundred councils across the country meaning many voters’ voices are unheard.

England continues to rely on this undemocratic system for local elections, where only the votes for the top candidate to ‘get over the line’ secure representation – all others are ignored. Spread out over thousands of individual contests, this can lead to some parties being drastically over- or under-represented.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, voters can rank candidates by preference, and ‘surplus’ votes (which would be ignored under FPTP) are redistributed according to voters’ other choices. Most advanced democracies use proportional systems where seats more closely reflect parties’ share of the vote.

It’s time we ended the broken First Past the Post system in England – a system that continues to warp our politics. A more proportional system would help open local democracy and make sure all voters’ voices are heard.

Local elections: How voters in England were cheated by a broken voting system