Does everyone matter? The problems with how we elect CouncillorsPosted: September 25, 2011
The slogan of Sheffield City Council is “where everyone matters”, but when it comes to elections and the representation of the voters on the council: Does everyone matter? In this post I will be pointing out some of the flaws I believe there are in the way Councillors are elected.
Sheffield is one of the largest cities in the UK and is divided into 28 Wards, each of which elects 3 Councillors to fill the 84 Seats on the City Council. Elections happen in 4 year cycles with 1 election each year for 3 years and none in the 4th, except when there are by-elections being held. One seat in each ward comes up for election at a time with councillors being elected by the First Past The Post electoral system (also known as “plurality voting” or “winner takes all”). The last election in May 2011 resulted in the Labour Party replacing the Liberal Democrat/Green Party coalition as the ruling party on the council. The graph above illustrates the share of the vote at the last election in May 2011 and the number of council seats held (voting figures available online at the council website).
Some interesting observations can be garnered from the election results. At the last election in May 2011:-
- It took 1322 votes to elect a LibDem Councillor, 1563 votes to elect a Labour Councillor and a whopping 9161 votes to elect a Green Party Councillor.
- Conservative Party candidates received more votes than Green Party candidates and yet have not a single Councillor, compared to the Green Party’s two in Central ward.
- 18 Wards out of the 28 have Councillors of only one party, in most cases representing a minority of the residents in that area. For instance Beauchief and Greenhill has 3 Liberal Democrat councillors but the Liberal Democrats received only 40% of the vote in that Ward. There is a similar pattern across the city where Parties have more seats than their support would justify.
Councils provide services to their residents, either directly or by hiring private companies. They collect waste, run schools, maintain local infrastructure and a whole host of other duties. Councillors have an impact on residents’ lives that can be much more direct and tangible to locals than national government. Because if this it is important that every resident has their views represented in local government, even if they are a minority.
What is immediately apparent from the graph is that the share of the vote a party receives has no relation to the number of seats that party receives. To win a council seat a candidate just needs to get one more vote than the person in second place, regardless of their share of the vote. FPTP is supposed to be used to decide between two candidates for a single position, meaning that whoever got more than 50% of the vote was elected. This is Majority Rule and is democratic. However once you introduce additional candidates the 50% threshold is gone and the number of votes to get elected is now determined by the number of candidates running and the number of voters. Due to vote splitting, an unpopular candidate can win because all voters opposed to them are split between rival candidates. Over the course of several elections it is possible for a Party to get all of the seats in a Ward based on a small proportion of the vote. This is called Largest Minority Rule and is undemocratic.
In Wards represented by a single party, unless your views match those of the councillors you will go unrepresented. While Councillors no doubt try to serve all their residents they cannot be expected to be able to represent the views of all their residents. A ward of 3 Labour councillors cannot be expected to fairly represent the political views of local Conservative voters any more than 3 men can be expected to fairly represent the views or issues faced by women in the ward. As we have seen in the chart above, some groups of voters are over represented, while others are greatly under-represented, if not at all! Why should people take part in a supposedly democratic process in which this is the case? No wonder turnout is falling nationally as more and more people find their supposed representatives out of step with their views.
A proportional system of voting, where seats are allocated based on amount of support, would be more democratic and allow fairer representation of all views. This has been the case in Northern Ireland for many decades and in Scotland since 2007 where in both nations they use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) method for electing councillors.
In addition to problems with representation the cycle of elections also throws up some problems. Currently 1/3 of council seats (1 seat per Ward) come up for election each year. This means that the Council parties are always in election mode, a game of continuous one-upmanship trying to get electoral advantage at the expense some might feel of constructive and good government. Just imagine if we elected 1/3 of MPs every year – the adversarial bickering is bad enough with 5 years between elections. There is also the impact on the voter to consider: With elections every year voters can suffer from election fatigue, bored of repeatedly going to the polls – especially under an electoral system where their vote has little effect.
Finally, electing 1/3 of councillors at each election undermines accountability, a key factor in any democracy. Accountability means that the people have the power to reward or punish councillors and parties by voting for or against them based on their performance. Under a system of staggered elections it can take several years for the will of the people to take effect, thus undermining this ability of the people. Imagine a Council which is run by a party with a sizeable majority. After a couple of years they become unpopular and the majority of people now support a different party. Instead of the party then losing the next election and being replaced, if only a few seats are up for grabs they might still maintain control and are able to pursue their agenda with hardly any democratic mandate. It might take a few more elections for them to lose control completely – but by this time popular opinion has softened and they start to gain seats again.
Holding elections less often and with all seats up for election would mean that the electorate would not get voting fatigue and that the will of the people would be enacted more immediately. However it should be noted that currently, in councils where all the seats in a ward are up for election at the same time, FPTP is still used (The top 3 candidates are chosen to fill the seats. They are usually from the same party.), meaning that the result is not representative and that a minority of voters can get all of the seats in one go. At the next election a different party may get all three seats. Going from one extreme to another, all the time many voters not getting the representation they deserve.
I suggest that given those flaws outlined above there is a serious case for reforming local authority elections and replacing it with a system which would really make everyone matter and give fair representation to the people akin to that voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland already enjoy.
Richard is a local activist and member of the Steering Group of Sheffield for Democracy and was actively involved in the local Yes! to Fairer Votes campaign. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of other members of Sheffield for Democracy or of the Steering Group.