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?