Times letters: One-party ‘fiefdoms’ and electoral reform

A letter from the Electoral Reform Society to the Times, 31 March, spells out the danger of one-party domination in local government. The solution proposed is electoral reform. In the short term we have County Council elections on May 6 and Owl believes that voters should use the opportunity to vote for a more diverse council membership. In essence the questions to ask are: which candidate are free from party whipping and can truly represent the interests of their patch (“Division” in county-speak), and are committed to following the Nolan principles?

Sir, Patrick Maguire is right to highlight the one-party fiefdoms that plague local government (Mar 29). Indeed we often see the absurdity of “scrutiny committees”, reviewing millions of pounds in contracts, being dominated by the same party in office. It is a recipe for disaster. The risks of winner-takes-all politics — of sloppy decision-making and dodgy dealings — are clear. Research for the Electoral Reform Society in 2015 found that councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6 billion a year through a lack of scrutiny of their procurement processes. The study looked at thousands of public sector contracts, and found that one-party dominated councils were about 50 per cent more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils, paying far over the odds to lobbyist contractors.

Alarm bells should be ringing in Whitehall. A shift to proportional representation is vital to provide the scrutiny that voters need. Instead, the home secretary is scrapping the preferential voting system for choosing mayors, which will entrench one-party domination. She must think again.

Darren Hughes

CEO, Electoral Reform Society

More detail and link to the 2015 research from www.electoral-reform.org.uk 

The study – undertaken by Cambridge University academic Mihály Fazekas – is titled The Cost of One-Party Councils and looks at the savings in contracting between councils dominated by a single party (or with a significant number of uncontested seats), and more competitive councils.

It finds that ‘one-party councils’ could be missing out on savings of around £2.6bn when compared to their more competitive counterparts – most likely due to a lack of scrutiny. £2.6bn is a lot of potential extra cash for our struggling authorities.

The report also measures councils’ procurement process against a ‘Corruption Risk Index’ – and finds that one-party councils are around 50% more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils. The corruption risk of competitive councils compared to those dominated by one party is similar to the difference between the average Swedish municipality and the average Estonian municipality. This doesn’t bode well for democracy or council coffers.

And it’s no small-scale study. It uses ‘big data’ to look at 132,000 public procurement contracts between 2009 and 2013 to identify ‘red flags’ for corruption, such as where only a single bid is submitted or there is a shortened length of time between advertising the bid and the submission deadline.

One-party councils come about because of the distorting effects of First Past the Post in local elections. So today, we’re renewing our call for England and Wales to adopt the Scottish system (the Single Transferable Vote) for electing local councils. In Scotland, it has been shown to completely end the phenomena of one-party councils and uncontested seats – and could result in significant public savings, by increasing levels of scrutiny and lowering councils’ risk of dodgy dealings.

These findings make sense really. When single parties have almost complete control of councils, scrutiny and accountability tend to suffer.

The £2.6bn potential wastage is a damning indictment of an electoral system that gives huge artificial majorities to parties and undermines scrutiny. This kind of waste would be unjustifiable at the best of times. But during a period of austerity it is simply astonishing.

Alarm bells should be ringing in Whitehall today. First Past the Post is clearly unfit for purpose – especially for local government – with parties able to win the vast majority of seats often on a minority of the vote (and on tiny turnouts).

A fairer system, such as the one used in Scotland for local elections, would make ‘one-party states’ a thing of the past. And by letting the sunlight in, a fairer voting system could lead to substantial savings for the taxpayer.

Read the full report

One thought on “Times letters: One-party ‘fiefdoms’ and electoral reform

  1. Congratulations to the local conservatives with the diversity of their candidates someone to represent those with drink driving convictions but no longer anyone to represent those who might at some time anticipate a child sexual abuse charge. It’s also fair to say they have a good history of representing clowns and toilet seats. Best of luck to those candidates who wish to represent all of us based on compassion, honesty and the Nolan principles.


Comments are closed.