England’s local elections should be fairer – look at Scotland

This May will see a record number of UK elections. There will be elections for councillors in large parts of England, as well as all of Scotland and Wales. Not to mention, there’s a pivotal Northern Ireland Assembly election the same day.

There is much wrong with the UK’s local democracy, but councils are an important, if overlooked, part of our political machinery. And yet there’s a key issue that splits the UK’s local democracy into two clear categories: the voting system used. 

Councillors in England and Wales are elected via First Past the Post, making local elections there incredibly unrepresentative – often leading to localised one-party states. However, councillors in Scotland or Northern Ireland are elected using the Single Transferable Vote, a form Proportional Representation. This ensures that councils reflect how people vote at their ballot boxes.

In England, May’s local elections will be extremely unrepresentative yet again – just like in the House of Commons. Consider Westminster City Council, located in the heart London. The Conservatives won more than two-thirds (41 of 60) of available seats in 2018 with just 42.8% of votes. What’s more, Labour won just 19 seats on a nearly identical vote share (41.1%). Even though the Liberal Democrats won 9.4%, they still took home no seats.


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Labour won 60.6% votes in nearby Islington. Of course, the party won a clear majority of the vote here but 6 in 10 votes shouldn’t justify them taking a whopping 47 of all 48 seats available. The Greens won only one seat on the council, but received a quarter of the votes. The Lib Dems, Conservatives and others were left with nothing.

Representative democracy should only be representative. First Past the Post, however, rewards the largest party unjustly and punishes the smaller ones. England’s representation is at best semi-representative and at worst unrepresentative.

Next up is Wales, which sits in the middle. Thanks to the, the Welsh councils have the power to upgrade to the Single Transferable Vote. Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act. This is a positive development that will lead to better democracy. The Act places the power of changing the voting system in the hands each council, which is a good thing, but it will not lead to significant changes. Any reforms will depend on the influence that Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems have in administration coalitions. It will also depend on the desire for reform within local Labour party. The situation is still a welcome improvement over what was before.

However, voters in Scotland can feel confident that the vote they cast this year in local elections will not be wasted. The second Labour-Lib Dem government in the devolution era introduced Single Transferable Vote (a form Proportional Representation) to councillors starting with the 2007 elections. Each of Scotland’s 32 councils are divided into multi-member wards, made up of three or four councillors (with some exceptions), elected by voters in order of preference. STV allows councils to reflect how people vote. Votes that are not counted are significantly reduced, and citizens have a wide range of voices in council chambers. This is good news for democracy.

Take the City of Edinburgh Council. The 2017 election resulted in seats that broadly reflected how voters voted. Each ward was represented by councillors representing multiple parties. The SNP won 27.1% and 19 seats (30.2%), while the Conservatives received 27.7% and 18 seats (28.6%). Labour won 18.4% of the first preferences and 12 seat (19.1%), Greens 12.4% of the votes and eight seats (12.7%), while the Lib Dems won 13.6% and six seats (9.5%). 

This is similar to the 2003 Edinburgh election, where Labour won a majority on only 27.4% of votes while the SNP won none on 15.6%. STV was able to create a strong connection between seats and votes in 2017. This will continue in 2022.

Of course, Scotland’s STV set-up needs some fine-tuning. The fact that wards are mainly composed of three or four members makes it less proportional. Data analysis by political scientists John Carey and Simon Hix (2011)The electoral sweetspot (where there is a balance between proportionality, and the number of representatives within an electoral district) is between 4-8 members. This resulted in the Conservatives winning the most preference votes, but the SNP gaining one seat. There are perhaps lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland Assembly. It also goes to the polls every May and uses STV to broadcast five-member wards.

However, the principle is sound and the setup for Scottish local governments meets the minimum goal, which is to ensure broad proportionality and voter empowerment. This contrasts sharply with England and Wales. Tweaks should be made to improve Scotland’s STV system but getting England and Wales to this point would be a massive step forward. 

There is a better method to elect councillors in England or Wales than First Past the Post. Not to mention our MPs at the House of Commons. 

Proportional Representation is effective in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and most legislatures around the wider democratic world. Thursday 5 May 2022 will yield yet another set of unrepresentative results in England and Wales in sharp contrast to much fairer local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Assembly election.

Although it is unlikely that there will be any change under the Conservative government, local government should not be ignored if First Past the Post at Westminster is abolished.