Monday, 18 October 2010

Electoral Reformers should shift their focus from Westminster to Local Councils.

Discussions on electoral reform always centre on Westminster, but it is my view that after the referendum on AV is over with electoral reformers should concentrate on electing councils by STV. Why?

STV is a system whereby constituencies are multi-member, with generally a maximum of around about six representatives. Voters then rank candidates according to preference, if a candidate reaches a quota of votes set at the number of votes divided by the number of seats +1 then they are elected. Votes ‘over’ the quota, and votes from eliminated candidates are transferred until all the seats are filled. This sounds complex but it has several big advantages:

  • It is semi-proportional. Generally STV parliaments end up with a reasonable representation of parties.
  • Voters vote for people rather than parties, therefore meaning that every candidate has gotten there on their own work. Indeed there is a certain level of competition foisted upon candidates from the same party.
  • Politics tends to become quite local. Candidates have to represent their constituents well because a bad constituency representative may be replaced by someone from the same party. Sometimes this is used to criticise the system. In Ireland it is occasionally argued that MPs spend too much time thinking about their constituents and not enough time thinking about the national picture!

I feel that STV makes particular sense at a local level because most council wards are already multi-member. In most councils what already happens is that wards have three members, one member is elected each year with the ward lying ‘fallow’ for one year every four years. What this means is that there are yearly elections to councils meaning that an informed voter has to lock into local politics once a year. This means that turnouts tend to be low (usually about 30-35%) and local elections tend to be reflections on the national performance of parties rather than the local performance of parties, indeed these are the terms in which they are usually analysed. With STV the same constituency boundaries could be used but elections could take place once every four years. Local parties could dedicate more resources to fighting one big election leading to bigger, shinier, clearer local elections, with more accountability. What’s more constituencies are already multi-member, so the argument for single representative FPTP is invalid – this does not exist in most local councils.

Similarly the typical arguments against STV and other electoral systems don’t necessarily apply. A typical argument against proportional representation is that it leads to unstable coalition government, but councils tend to operate by consensus anyway, and in any case many councils across the country are under no overall control. My own council, Weymouth and Portland, has not enjoyed the wonders of majority control since 1979! All manner of governance type can be found in British councils, coalitions of several types, minority governments, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum there are councils in some areas with zero opposition to one party, for example Barking and Dagenham council now has no members from any party besides the Labour Party since the BNP group was wiped out. Yet at the same time STV biases against extremist parties like the BNP because supporters of mainstream parties are highly unlikely to second preference them. In other words it is likely that Conservative voters will preference Labour before the BNP. In FPTP there is the danger that a divided mainstream could ‘let in’ BNP councillors, this is less likely under STV. Similarly too councillors tend to vote more as individuals than as parties and so STV would allow voters to select individuals on their stances rather than simply allying to a party. Finally, it should be noted that since 2007 Scotland has had STV elected local councils and so far the world hasn’t ended North of the border.

Yet why should electoral reformers particularly concentrate on this reform? Well firstly like it or not we have a referendum on AV in May. Once it is over the question of electoral reform will be sealed for some time. Win or lose it would be ludicrous to have another debate on Westminster electoral reform, whatever the system, within the next ten to twenty years. The question will have basically been decided upon for the time being, and so Westminster electoral reform should take a backseat for a little while. Yes, it should be a long-term objective, but it will be out of the public mind. Secondly, for the reasons I outlined above I believe it would improve local democracy, which can only be a good thing. Finally, however, if people get used to voting using STV at local level and dealing with it at a local level they will become more open to it at Westminster, and in the long-term this may be the best way of securing electoral reform at a national level.


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