Local democracy and electoral reform

The impact of our broken voting system on our national politics is clear – the false majorities, voters abandoned in safe seats where representation hasn’t changed in generations, and the scourge of tactical voting where millions of people have to decide to vote with their head or their heart – to vote for who they want or to vote tactically to keep out who they don’t want. Electoral reform in Westminster is essential, but one of the ways to achieve that is, as with so many things in politics, to start local.

Having a vibrant political culture underpinned by deliberation and participation starts at a local level with people feeling that voting matters – feeling that it can make a difference to their everyday lives. But there are systemic failings in local democracy that are limiting the development of that culture of participation; the growth of one party states and uncontested seats mean reform is urgent.

For Unlock Democracy that means a broadly proportional system where voters can choose between both parties and individual candidates, which is of particular importance for independent candidates.

In our current system, political parties are encouraged to chase after the same swing voters in the handful of marginal seats across the country. This has left elections in some areas looking more like North Korea than North Kent, with no opposition at all on the council, or only one candidate on the ballot.

Our voting system has stunted the development of local democracy across the country, and millions of people have been left without a strong voice in how their local community is run. Political parties narrow their policy platforms in the search for a centre ground and voters are left with a lack of diversity and debate of ideas. These problems are acute at a local level, which is both the area where most people are likely to first become politically active but also where they are least likely to have choice.

Uncontested seats mean that tens of thousands of people are routinely denied a choice. In 2015 for example, Eden District Council was able to declare 21 of its 38 available seats before the elections had even taken place, with a majority of the council (55%) being returned with no one voting at all.

More recently in the May 2017 council elections, nearly 100 councillors in Wales were reappointed without being challenged, with 7.3 percent of Welsh local authority seats uncontested, with half of Wales’ 22 local authorities having at least one ward in which there was no challenger. In such circumstances, as a constituent, your options for voicing concerns are very limited indeed when one party has monopoly control over a council, or when you are presented with no options at the ballot box.

This problem compounds and becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. If parties struggle to find and field candidates, they focus their resources on areas where they know they can win. They stop investing in seats that aren’t winnable, leaving voters with a limited choice of parties to vote for. This leads to uncontested seats, depriving voters of the choice of a full range of parties at the ballot box, and ultimately, a real voice in shaping the local government agenda.

Parties that benefit from no opposition then become complacent, feeling that they don’t need to engage with voters because they’re ‘safe’, and in the worst cases this breeds corruption. The Electoral Reform Society estimates that councils with weak electoral accountability are around a 50 percent higher corruption risk than their competitive counterparts. This is the reality for whole swathes of the country.

The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy that took place in the summer of 2017 sparked a very real sense of anger in British politics at the moment: anger that people aren’t being listened to; anger that our health service is failing and schools aren’t properly funded; anger that there is no accountability when things go wrong. While our political system did not start the Grenfell Tower fire, it did nothing for the people who lived there.

Long before the devastating fire, residents’ concerns were ignored time and time again by the very people that were elected to represent them. The Grenfell Action Group, set up by residents, raised many complaints with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – and not just about fire safety in the tower. From calls to protect a local college, to concerns about disruption caused by improvement works, residents’ complaints fell on deaf ears. Our democratic institutions are meant to be responsive to the needs of the people elected officials are put in place to represent, and when wealthy residents are rewarded with tax rebates and pats-on-the-back for not claiming support from the council while disadvantaged residents are ignored, it can only be concluded that this system is fundamentally broken.

It’s no wonder that only 29% of people think that Parliament is doing a good job of representing their interests, or that when it comes to picking a party to vote for, 56% of people feel that no party properly represents the view of people like them. For a representative democracy – this is crisis point.

Proportional representation is exciting because it is not just about institutional change but how we achieve change. Changing our electoral system is not a panacea that will cure all the ills of democracy, but it is one reform that has the power to open up our political system. This already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and many of the arguments that are used against PR systems, such as the fact that you need to have larger constituencies and elect more than one person, simply don’t apply at a local level.

Local electoral reform has transformed the quality of local democracy in Scotland. For example, the phenomenon of uncontested seats has been significantly reduced. There were 67 uncontested seats in Scotland in 2003, whereas there were only three in 2017. Compared with 2003, the number of candidates standing has also increased by 76, suggesting that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system has stimulated competitiveness in local elections.

When we we talk about democracy it is often in terms of processes and institutions, such as voting and parliament. But people often get involved in politics because of local issues that affect them – planning applications, fracking, air quality, or the closure of local libraries and other public services.

Not only does local government often lack the power to act on the issues that matter to local residents, but as previously discussed, it may not have the impetus to act. Local people lack the mechanisms to make change. We need a new bottom up process for communities and local government to reach agreement with central government about new structures that would give people the power to make changes in their local communities.

So, what are the solutions? We need voting reform, more powerful local government, and constitutional protections for devolved power. Scotland and Northern Ireland already prove that electoral reform in local government can be done, to great success. Moreover, existing solutions show that greater local democracy could be achieved without substantial upheaval, such as a complete redesign of boundaries. Beyond these living examples, there are a wide range of proposals that we can look to for inspiration.

Currently, without a written constitution the government is still free to make significant changes to the structure and powers of local government without their input or consent. An obvious starting point is therefore to codify the relationshipbetween central and local government, with checks and safeguards for devolved powers.

A report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, led by then chair Graham Allen MP, proposed such a codification to rebalance power away from the centre by putting power and finance together. As Allen described it at the time, this would “pave the way for a radical new settlement” for local government in England, clarifying “at what level of government power and accountability lie and provide a framework within which local councils would have the freedom to meet local needs and priorities”.

The Local Government Independence Code, drafted by Professor Colin Copus and proposed by Allen, would have created a clear separation between local and central government. The code would assert local authorities’ accountability as being to their electorates, not to Whitehall. Amongst a plethora of suggested reforms, this would have meant separate finances and a lock on provisions so central government couldn’t repeal the changes on a whim. Local councils could be transformed in such a system into a vehicle for devolution in England.

While reform is about fairness, and making sure that voting matters, reform is also about providing the public with choice, ending the monopolies some parties have over councils and creating a new spirit in local government of collaboration. Scotland and Northern Ireland show us that it can be done, and the existence of one party states and uncontested seats show us that it must be done.

Alexandra Runswick is the Director at Unlock Democracy

This article first appeared in Localis’s essay collection ‘Neo-localism: rediscovering the nation’