Birmingham Post

Electoral reform could have prevented tragedy

- Chris Game Chris Game, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham

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.

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 ??  ?? Proportion­al representa­tion in Lambeth would have had meant the abuse scandal would probably not have happened
Proportion­al representa­tion in Lambeth would have had meant the abuse scandal would probably not have happened

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