Electoral reform could have prevented tragedy
THE recent Independent Inquiry report, chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, into the serial sexual abuse of children in the residential care (or mis-care) of Lambeth Council from the 1960s to 1990s makes dire, sickening reading.
It is lessened not one jot by being semi-historic, particularly for someone like myself who had at least intermittent dealings with the councillors and officers of Lambeth and other London councils during the 1980s, the most politically malevolent of those decades.
On intendedly ‘management training programmes’ we would discuss the politics of our local government system.
‘Big P’ party politics – elections and councillors’ electoral accountability – and ‘small p’ interpersonal politics – the sensitive area of councillor-officer relations and respective spheres of responsibility, including obviously to electors and service users.
It was during the 1980s, however, that the Jay Inquiry found a root cause of the “widespread” sexual and other abuse of children in ‘care’ to be the “politicised behaviour and turmoil” that dominated and warped the Labour-controlled council.
Children were functionally weaponised in a “toxic power game” between Labour councillors and the Thatcher Conservative Government – a project that took precedence over providing quality, or simply adequate and undamaging, services and in 1985/6 over even setting a council tax rate.
It’s rather late now to return my training programme fee, and I can’t meaningfully comment on the fundamental changes since implemented.
I raise the Lambeth case solely because it loosely links to recent election-related news items I do know something about.
The first is that on May 6, while I was previewing in these pages the various ‘first-past-the-post’ or ‘winner-takes-all’ council elections across the West Midlands, voters elsewhere in GB were voting in their sixth sets of proportional representation (PR) elections for their respective devolved institutions: the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and London Assembly.
There at least, what was once considered radical and even ‘un-British’ is now the widely supported norm, with versions of PR also used in Scottish local elections and soon, if councils choose, in Wales too.
They are preferred to ‘winnertakes-all’ because of results like those, for example, in this May’s Warwickshire and Worcestershire County Council elections.
The respective Conservative parties took 74% and 79% of their councils’ seats – and four years of statistically comfortable overall policy control – on well under half the respective votes cast.
Just as that 1983 Thatcher Conservative Government won its 144-seat Commons majority with 42% of votes.
These unearned bonuses are not just decisive, but gross, distorting, and potentially dangerous.
Under even a loosely PR system, that 42% would have given the Conservatives under 300 seats instead of 397, Labour perhaps 180, and the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance’s 25% vote share a potentially Government-determining 160-plus, instead of just 23. And that whole fractious decade would have been very different.
Fantasy, of course. But I do distinctly recall discussing – with Lambeth’s 40 Labour and 23 non-Labour councillors – how, had their 1982 local elections been run under a PR system, the chances were that, just as Thatcher probably wouldn’t have been in Downing Street, Labour almost certainly wouldn’t have won control of their 64-seat council.
For the Conservatives had won comfortably most votes, their 39% giving them perhaps 25 seats.
Labour’s 33% could have meant not 40, but 22, leaving the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance councillors holding the balance of power with maybe 17.
And the tragic events described in the Jay report would never have happened.
The message is obvious. Yes, election results shape history, but those results and outcomes are shaped by electoral systems.
There are many types of PR electoral systems, but all aim to produce parliamentary or council memberships proportionately reflecting actual votes cast.
And, conveniently, all three bodies mentioned – the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and London Assembly – use versions of the Additional Member System (AMS).
Voters have two ballot papers. One lists candidates standing for singlemember constituencies, the candidate with most Xs winning the seat.
The second, usually regional, ballot paper lists the contesting parties and their respective candidates, and the voter’s X goes to their preferred party list.
Now the key bit: these list seats are allocated specifically to ensure the overall seat shares in the Parliament/ assembly/council match as closely as possible the shares of party votes received.
And back in May? Space here, I’m afraid, only for Scotland, where the nowadays dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) won 62 of the Parliament’s 73 constituency seats – but with under 48% of the constituency vote.
The nearly 22% vote shares of the Conservatives and Labour won them just 5 and 2 constituency seats respectively.
These disparities, however, were ironed out in the second, regional votes.
The SNP’s 40% vote gained it only two additional seats, giving a total of 64 – just short of an overall majority in the 129-member Parliament, and reflecting its failure to win majorities in either vote.
By contrast, the Conservatives’ 24% regional vote earned them 26 additional seats to total 31.
Labour’s 18% brought them up to 22, and the Greens, without any constituency seats, won 8% of the regional vote, gaining them 8 seats.
Which is why, once they understand it, voters tend on balance to like it – because it includes, rather than excludes.
Which, sadly, is the precisely opposite aim of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s planned electoral reforms – from compulsory photo ID to abolishing preferential electoral systems for mayors, police commissioners and the London Assembly.
But then inclusivity really isn’t her bag – and, though a Londoner herself, she’s too young to remember 1980s Lambeth.