As most readers of the Blog will be aware, last week saw the Welsh Government publish their White Paper on local authorities (Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People). This was a lengthy and wide-ranging document, including a number of issues on which the government is actively soliciting outside opinions.
Most of the context of the White Paper touches on issues that fall well outside the remit of this Blog. But one part of the Welsh Government’s stated ambitions for local government reform is to improve democracy at local level. This clearly is directly related to what this blog is about: how elections are conducted, and who is elected through these elections.
There is much about the White Paper in this respect that reads rather well. I very much enjoyed reading the following statement:
“Democracy is the foundation which gives Local Government the moral and political authority to exercise the full range of powers and responsibilities vested in it by law. We believe this was insufficiently stressed in the report of the Commission for Public Service Governance and Delivery” (p.19).
I also support some more specific statements; for instance on p.26 the White Paper states that:
“We also believe it is important that candidates in Local Government elections are open and transparent about their political affiliations. We are therefore seeking views on whether candidates in Local Government elections should be required to record their membership of a registered political party on their nomination form, whether or not they are standing on behalf of that political party”.
I very much like this idea; there could be potential complications in implementation, but I strongly support such transparency and honesty in principle.
Elsewhere, on p.34 the White Paper proposes “an overall reduction in the number of Elected Members in Local Authorities to approximate more closely the position in the other parts of the UK”. All I can say in response to this is Yes! This is something for which I have been arguing for some years; we seem to be at least a bit closer to making it a reality.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal in this area of the White Paper will be that outlined on p.35, where the government says that it is “Seeking views” on whether there should be term limits for local councillors (five terms for elected members, two terms for leaders/Elected Mayors/Cabinet members). I am uncomfortable with the principle of restricting who the public can vote for, although I am also familiar with research evidence that has suggested some potential benefits in practice. By forcing well dug-in incumbents to move on, elections can be made more competitive and the membership of elected bodies can be refreshed. At the last round of Welsh local elections, 8.0% of all ‘elected’ councillors were actually returned unopposed, so we could certainly do with more vibrant electoral competition.
But there is a much better way to achieve this aim – and one that is also consistent with the other aims for representativeness of the White Paper. Scotland introduced the Single Transferable Vote system for local elections in 2007, and had its second round of using that system in 2012. In contrast to Wales, Scotland in 2012 had no councillors elected unopposed. STV produces far fewer safe seats for parties, and thus a greater degree of competition; rather than the same people forever re-elected with little competition in particular wards, and overall outcomes that bear little relationship to the verdict of the voters.
Sadly, the issue of electoral systems is wholly ignored throughout the entire document. It is what my former boss used to call a ‘screaming silence’. In the Foreword to the White Paper, by the Minister Leighton Andrews, we are told that “we must ensure local Councils are wholly representative of local communities” (p.vi). It is very difficult to disagree with that. But it would also be very difficult to actually achieve substantial progress towards this aim as long as we continue to choose our elected council members under electoral system(s) that actively promote un-representative outcomes.
On pages 31-33, for example, the White Paper develops a discussion about diversity in council representation, and the desirability of making local councils less dominated by white men over the age of 50. Yet, while the document as a whole makes an admirable effort to draw on relevant research, here it ignores the substantial research evidence that more proportional voting systems tend to produce electoral outcomes that are not only more representative in terms of the balance between parties, but also in terms of social characteristics.
In sum: I applaud the ambitions of the White Paper in terms of the democratic representativeness of local government in Wales. But these ambitions cannot realistically and convincingly be addressed unless the issue of the electoral system we use for choosing our councillors is also confronted.