Broken electoral system creating 'rotten boroughs'

Source: PSE June/July 2019

The lack of candidates in recent elections is a worrying trend which impacts on communities and democracy. Willie Sullivan, a senior director at independent campaign organisation the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), provides some solutions which could transform the English process.

The local elections in May saw parties’ shifting fortunes dominate the headlines. Yet there was another story: hundreds of thousands of voters saw their elections cancelled across England. Large parts of England effectively became ‘democracy deserts’ amid a worrying number of uncontested seats.

ERS research found that 300 council seats in England were guaranteed for one party or individual before a single vote was cast – weeks before polling day – denying around 850,000 potential voters a say. This happened in two ways. 150 councillors were elected to office without a single ballot cast in their name where the number of nominated candidates equalled the number of councillors to be elected. Around 270,000 potential voters were denied their democratic right of expressing a preference in this way.

Elsewhere parties or independent candidates were guaranteed an additional 152 seats through multi-member wards going ‘under-contested’ – when a lack of competition means that at least one seat in the ward was guaranteed for a particular party, or independent candidate. There were around a further 580,000 potential voters in wards such as these.

Some areas were worse than others: Fenland District Council in Cambridgeshire saw 12 of the district’s 39 seats going uncontested. That means nearly a third of this year’s council intake was decided without a single ballot being cast.

There are big regional differences. The East Midlands has the highest number of uncontested seats, followed by the East of England, West Midlands and the South East in close proximity. Elections are the cornerstone of our democracy – yet these uncontested and under-contested seats mean people are being denied their most basic democratic rights.

This democratic deficit is a long-running problem in local government elections in England. A key reason for this lack of competition is the voting system. As in UK general elections, local government elections in England use first-past-the-post.

This winner-takes all system, as with parliamentary constituencies, means many council wards are seen as ‘safe’ for one party or another. After a number of election cycles going to one party, many seats are viewed as electoral wastelands – unwinnable patches where an incumbent can win time and time again. 

In these wards there is often substantial support for parties and candidates beyond the one dominant party – it’s just that this support is not enough to give them a chance of winning under the broken, vote-wasting electoral system.

But things could be different. Since moving to a proportional voting system (the Single Transferable Vote) for local elections in 2007, the scourge of uncontested seats has almost vanished in Scotland. Levels of choice for voters soared, alongside huge numbers seeing their votes converted into real representation. 

Under STV a small team of representatives (typically three to five councillors) are elected to represent an area. Voters number candidates in order of preference, ranking as many or as few as they see fit.

To get elected, a candidate needs to win a set amount of votes, based on the number of seats available and the number of votes cast. If a candidate doesn’t reach the threshold, their voters’ second choices are used instead – helping to end the scandal of ‘wasted votes’ and the tactical voting we see in England. Despite its success north of the border, voters in England remain restrained by a one-person-takes-all system with millions of votes going to waste and, as we’ve seen, hundreds of seats where voting doesn’t even happen.

It’s time we brought the era of rotten boroughs to a close. Scrapping the broken first-past-the-post system in England would be relatively simple given that we know it works – as in Scotland and Northern Ireland – and many English councils already have multi-member wards. The Welsh Government is currently consulting on allowing councils to switch to a more proportional voting system. England should too.


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