140,000 reasons for reform
Why first past the post is creating democracy deserts across Welsh local government
Next week voters across 21 ofWales’ 22 unitary authorities will head to the polls to decide the political make-up of their local councils. Voters will express a view on where they want to see their council head for the next five years. The direction of travel on a range of critical issues like council tax, social services, schools, transport and economic development will all be set.
But for nearly 140,000 the opportunity to express a view has been stolen from them by an unfair and outdated electoral system. For them, next Thursday won’t be Election Day.
AcrossWales, 95 individuals have already been elected unopposed. The simple task of submitting nomination forms was all it took. No need especially to phone canvass, knock a single door, or attend a hustings. In one ward, no one submitted nomination forms. Residents there will go unrepresented until a by-election is organised.
Electoral Reform Society research shows that acrossWales, 12 of the 21 councils up for election contain uncontested seats. The worst, Powys is home to an estimated 32,132 residents denied a vote. Gwynedd has approximately 22,861 residents robbed a voice; and in Pembrokeshire its 20,038.
This is not just a problem for ruralWales. Voting won’t interrupt the daily routine of 7,085 residents in Bridgend county borough next Thursday. Nor the 7,524 taxpayers who live in local government minister Carl Sargeant’s own constituency.
Is this a sign of a declining interest in politics? A sign that fewer and fewer people are interested in standing? Or is it an illustration of how our ‘winner takes it all’ First Past The Post system is crowding out competition, particularly in single-member wards.
All of the 96 democracy deserts are single member wards. Yet even in multi-member wards, places like Plasnewydd inCardiff, the winning party (Liberal Democrats) took 100% of the seats (4 in total) on 44% of the vote. The 31% of Plasnewydd voters who opted for Labour were simply denied a Labour voice onCardiffcouncil. This is an unfairness which is repeated in county after county across the country.
Scotlandhad similar problems, but in 2007 moved to a fairer system of electing local councillors. There are now no single member wards inScotland. Local voters there get to express a preference at the ballot box, ranking in order their preferred candidates. The unfair situation where the ‘winner takes all’ is avoided as seats are distributed more proportionately.
It’s a system that the 2004 Sunderland Commission, established by the then Labour and Liberal Democrat partnership government, recommended. It’s a system that would have provided a vote to the 140,000 Welsh taxpayers who live in one of the 96 democracy deserts. It’s a system that the Welsh Government must now get on and implement. Walescannot afford to waste a further 8 years waiting for fair votes.
Stephen Brooks is Director of the Electoral Reform Society Wales
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