Welsh Government White Paper on Reforming Local Government

The last day of January saw the Welsh Government publish a White Paper on Reforming Local Government: Resilient and Renewed. Introduced by Mark Drakeford, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, the White Paper covered a wide range of ground, including regional partnerships between councils and the possibility of voluntary mergers between local authorities. But it also had an electoral dimension. Section 7 of the white paper covers ‘Elections and Voting’. The paper was written in the expectation, now realised, that the Wales Bill would become the Wales Act, and transfer powers over local elections in Wales to the National Assembly.

The white paper sets out a range of things that it says the Welsh Government is ‘likely to consider’, covering matters including: postal voting, electronic voting or counting of votes, electoral registration, and whether the voting age for local (and National Assembly) elections should be reduced to 16. Another matter which the white paper discusses, under ‘greater transparency for those standing for office’ is whether all council candidates should be required to state if they are members of a political party – whether or not they are actually standing as official candidates for that party. If that aim can be achieved, it is something that I would very much favour. And the white paper also states a clear intention to prevent sitting Assembly Members from also continuing to serve as councillors. (I have absolutely no idea who they might have had in mind there…)

The most interesting element of this section of the white paper, however – or, at least, the most interesting to me – and the one to which by far the greatest space is devoted concerns how councils are elected. The white paper notes that local elections in England and Wales are currently conducted under some or other version of First Past the Post: either in single-member or multi-member wards. Long-time readers of this blog will be aware that I once, with perhaps only a slight touch of hyperbole, described the latter as the worst electoral system in the world, “a system that combines all the vices of SMDP [i.e. classic single-member First Past the Post] with none of the redeeming features”. Meanwhile, local elections in Northern Ireland (since 1973) and Scotland (since 2007) have used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies: here, voters cast their ballot as a ranked list of preferences, and normally between 3-6 representatives are elected in each ward.

The white paper recognises that there are other electoral systems available, including those used in recent years for devolved and European elections. However, it argues (see p.49 of the white paper) that “among the alternatives, the other electoral system which best reflects the current and future needs of local government in Wales” is STV. It and First Past the Post are to be the two electoral systems potentially used for local elections in Wales.

But the white paper does something surprising and innovative. Rather than suggest that local elections be conducted under one or other system across Wales, or even that we have a debate about which of the two systems local elections should be conducted under, it proposes to allow for council-by-council variation. On the basis that “Each Local Authority has its own democratic mandate” (p.47), it suggests allowing each council to decide whether they continue to use First Past the Post, or switch to STV. This approach, we are told, means that it “will be for Councils themselves to make the choice of voting systems for their own localities” (p.49).

This is an unusual approach. (One suspects Sir Humphrey Appleby might have described it as ‘highly original’…). Allowing each council to decide their own method of election could potentially introduce variation across the twenty-two councils in Wales. At present only the size of wards – single- or multi-member – is able to vary between (and indeed within) local authorities.

The other major restriction on change suggested in the white paper – other than change being limited to the option of STV alone – is a ‘two elections’ clause. The white paper suggests that if a council does change to STV, it would have to use that system for two full elections before it could change back. Other than that, local councillors would, it appear, be wholly free to decide whether their area changed to STV or not. The white paper does not propose anything like the ‘super-majority’ clause that was included in the Wales Act. That gave the National Assembly control over its own electoral arrangements; but this was made subject to a two-thirds majority clause – which effectively requires cross-party consensus on any changes. Nothing similar, thus far at least, has been suggested for local councils. The ‘two elections’ clause appears to be the only major restriction proposed at present.

So what should we make of these proposals? I am personally very definitely not a fan of multi-member first past the post, as indicated above. STV has long appeared to me as a much more suitable and fair way of electing councillors in multi-member wards. We know from experience in Scotland and Northern Ireland that it can be used without any major problems for local elections.

The peculiarity in these proposals is the proposal for local variation. This means effectively allowing councils, and thereby existing councillors standing for re-election, to choose the electoral system best suited to them – or at least a majority of them. Party self-interest is always stark, and unavoidable, in electoral system choice. So is it not best to build in at least some safeguards to inhibit the direct pursuit of party self-interest?

One other potential consideration is public confusion. We currently use First Past the Post for Westminster elections; AMS for the National Assembly (at the moment at least); and the Supplementary Vote system for PCC elections. To this mixture is now potentially added STV – but only in some places, and not in others. This patchwork quilt of electoral systems would surely not be particularly helpful for public comprehension. It might also make life rather difficult for the parties themselves. STV is quite a complex system for the parties to learn to operate, and it would surely not be helpful to them if it were to be only applied in some places and for one set of elections.

It would certainly be simpler if, like in Northern Ireland, we could use STV for all elections other than Westminster. This would allow both parties and voters to get to understand this system, and how it works, much better. But perhaps that is asking for too much?

Comments

  • Nigel Marriott

    Roger,

    I agree with you that the multi-member FPTP system used in local government is one of the worst and it is ripe for replacement.

    However, I am completely against preference based voting systems such as AV or STV. Choosing who governs us is one of the most important decisions we can make and it is a cop-out to get people to rank in order of preference. After all, when we decide who to marry, where to go on holiday, what to eat tonight, we decide, not rank in order of preference. We might use rankings to help make a decision but in the end voters should state who they want as their government.

    The other thing I am opposed to is closed party lists as used in EU elections and AMS. However, there are open list variants of PR and in 2015 I wrote an article examining how the General Election would have turned out using the 3-member open list d’Hondt system.

    The nice thing about 3 member open d’Hondt is that it is an evolution of the existing system in local elections. Each voter could still have 3 votes in a 3-member ward but what changes is how the votes are counted and the seats allocated. Also as my article makes clear, what is an apparently complicated system mathematically turns out to be quite simple when only 3 members are elected under d’Hondt.

    So if Wales are planning to allow councils to try out their own systems, I do hope that some of them try out the 3-member open list d’Hondt system as described in my article.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1740-9713.2015.00841.x/full

  • Lyn Thomas

    Turkeys voting for Christmas comes to mind, unlike the above commentator I’d much rather all councils operated under the same system and I’d like that to be by STV as it gives the greatest power to the electorate to select the people best to represent them.

  • Geraint Talfan Davies

    Allowing local variations in voting systems surely undermines the concept of equal voting rights throughout the Welsh polity. It challenges the very existence of such a polity

  • Dewi Eirig Jones

    Should ‘none of the above’ be included in elections to improve the quality of candidates and, probably, to increase voter turnout?

  • Geraint

    Your piece started me thinking about the basic building blocks of our electoral system which are the wards and I had a look a county that I’ve a long association with. I started by thinking that the wards in the rural part of this county were built up on collections of religious parishes that I guess go back to the Middle Ages. I was very surprised to see the variation in size with the smallest rural ward having 1,190 voters and the largest rural ward having 2,681 voters. So am I right in thinking the Electoral Commission have endored this imbalance because of religious arrangements set up well before the universal franchise? I’m a bit of a pedant on that one as my grandmother (In the mother of democracies) for most of her life did not have the vote. In urban areas I expected there to be more uniformity. But I was somewhat surprised to find in the largest town in the county there were neighbouring wards with variations of over 1,000 voters. Another ward on the other side of town had over 1,500 extra voters coming in with 2,952 voters. To add insult to injury a ward to the south of the town had 53 fewer voters and two councillors. It would seem to me that we need a local government system that is transparent and is seen to be fair to start with and any changes that result from demographic changes can be quickly rectified so that our representative democracy is actually representative.

  • Christian Schmidt

    I think giving local councils choice is indeed highly innovative. And I am pretty certain that sooner than later it would lead to STV all around.

    Consider this: for councils that have no overall control but where one party has the potential to have overall control on a minority of votes under FPTP, the other parties will surely bring STV about as quick as they can. Councils in such a situation include Monmouthshire and VOG (where the Tories currently don’t have a majority but have the potential to get one in a good year) and pretty every other South Wales council should Labour lose their current majority.

    Once there are a number of STV councils, any majority party on minority votes advocating keeping FPTP will relentlessly be charged by the others as being undemocratic (esp. if members of the same party have voted for STV in other council areas). How many will dare to resist that pressure?

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