Councils must seize on reform to create a fairer voting system
Here, Political editor-at-large Martin Shipton takes aim at the new decision to let local authorities themselves decide how they should be elected
APIECE of legislation was passed by the Senedd this week that deserves to be seen as a huge cop-out.
It’s a section of the Local Government and Elections Bill that I have a problem with.
Not the section that extends voting in Welsh local authority elections to 16- and 17-year-olds.
I’m fully signed up to that, believing that young people of that age have just as much of a right to vote as the rest of us.
What I’m not happy about is the decision to let local authorities themselves decide how they should be elected.
Members of the Senedd had a great opportunity to improve Welsh democracy for the better, but have decided to duck out.
Since the introduction of elected local government in the late 19th century, councillors have been elected in England and Wales by the firstpast-the-post (FPTP) system – as, of course, have all MPs.
Historically it has led at a UK level to all kinds of distortions.
Margaret Thatcher, who wrought massive changes in the UK including the destruction of the mining industry, had three general election victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987.
The highest percentage vote achieved by the Conservative Party when she led it was 43.9% in 1979. Yet she had very healthy majorities on each occasion that enabled her to push through extremely contentious legislation.
Tony Blair also won three successive elections, in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Despite winning the first two in landslides, the highest percentage of the vote Labour won under his leadership was 43.2% in 1997.
At his third victory, he won a still healthy majority with 35.2% of the vote.
In councils across Wales, FPTP has enabled parties to stack up majorities they should not, on the basis of their percentage of the vote, be entitled to.
Yet given the opportunity to change the electoral system for councils from FPTP to the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV), the Welsh Government decided not to make a national decision.
Instead, councils will themselves be able to make the change on an individual basis – but only if those voting for STV win a two-thirds majority.
Frustratingly, notes to the bill produced by the Welsh Government itself make the case for STV: “STV is a preferential voting system, which means voters are asked to rank the available candidates in order of preference, using numbers.
“Voters may choose to rank all the available candidates or only as many as they wish.
“STV is considered to be a system of proportional representation. It usually produces results which generally reflect the proportions of votes cast for the different political parties, groups and independents in an individual electoral area and across the election as a whole.”
But the Welsh Government then goes on to state: “Each election of a principal council is a separate election confined to the area of the council. It is appropriate that the council should decide on its voting system, which best reflects the needs of their local people and communities.”
Jess Blair, director of the Electoral Reform Society in Wales, agrees with me that the right decision wasn’t made.
She said: “That councils can now choose to move to STV is a promising step forward for local democracy in Wales. This is the first time many voters will have the chance to have their voices properly heard at a local level – moving away from the broken First Past the Post system that has consistently failed voters.
“While the shift away from oneparty-takes-all voting is welcome, it is a disappointment that the Welsh Government didn’t go further with this – stopping short of adopting STV for all local authorities at once. This risks creating a patchwork of systems for local elections, with voters victim to a postcode lottery on whether they have access to a fair voting system.
“With the legislation passing this week it is essential that councils across Wales grab the bull by the horns and start making arrangements to take up this huge opportunity. It is voters being done a disservice by the current system and it is now the job of councillors to take forward these changes, get behind STV and put the interest of voters first.”
Yet while some councillors may see the merits of STV, many will want to carry on with the existing FPTP system that has served their own interests well for many years.
Those who hold power often don’t relinquish it willingly, as events in the United States have demonstrated all too clearly in recent weeks.
A move to STV would shake up local government in Wales.
Many find themselves alienated by the sense that their local council is composed of a self-perpetuating and immovable clique.
The tribalistic battles might not be quite so virulent if parties were obliged to work together rather than square up to each other on every available occasion.
Perhaps this is unfair, and those holding the reins of power in city halls and civic centres across the country will see the fairness in adopting STV.
It’s too late for the next Welsh council elections in 2022, but perhaps in time for the subsequent one in 2027. Scotland, after all, took the plunge in 2007, since when all local authorities have been elected by STV.
But as Jess Blair said to me when we discussed the chances of real reform in Wales yesterday, this is a long-term project.