Time to elect a new system?

Written by Katie Ghose on . Posted in Our blog

After our recent article looking at the scandal of uncontested elections, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society Katie Ghose got in touch to highlight just how endemic the problem is and offer one possible solution. Got to say, it sounds like a good idea to us...

Uncontested seats are a feature of our broken voting system

For thousands of people on May 7th, the local elections didn’t take place – not because it wasn’t an election year, but because only one person stood in their ward. When that happens, the result is a foregone conclusion: they’ve already won the seat well before polling day.

It’s a point Glen Ocsko raised in his blog recently, describing it as ‘scandalous’. It is. But it’s also in large part due to our broken voting system.

Our First Past the Post voting system destroys the incentive to stand for election in ‘safe’ seats, where other parties feel they have no chance of winning (even where they have significant support). And it means voters have no choice at the ballot box. That’s not democracy, in most people’s eyes.

Our analysis of this at the Electoral Reform Society showed that 55% of seats on Eden District council were uncontested on May 7th – with over half the council being unelected. On South Northamptonshire council, a third of seats went unchallenged. Both of these were an increase on the 2011 elections.

In South Staffordshire, in 29% of seats voters were left without any choice – well up from 6% in 2011. And in the Derbyshire Dales, nearly a quarter of council seats had only one candidate, again a significant increase compared to the last elections. This is a problem that’s getting worse. And quite simply it’s unacceptable. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Scotland used to suffer from the problem of uncontested seats. But this was eradicated by the introduction of Single Transferable Vote (STV) at local elections, a proportional voting system with larger multi-member wards and the ability to rank candidates. Today, all council seats in Scotland are regularly contested, giving voters a real choice at the ballot box.

Between 2011 and 2014 there were 382 uncontested council elections in England. That’s over 2.5 million people denied a vote. And in the 2014 local elections alone, 38,000 people were left voiceless because of uncontested seats. Scotland though, after introducing proportional representation, saw zero uncontested seats.

We know that Scotland going from 61 uncontested wards in 2003 under an unfair system to zero in 2007 and 2012 under a PR system was not a coincidence. More parties had a chance of winning (because the wards are multi-member), and ‘safe seats’ – where only one party stand a chance of being elected – disappeared entirely. And there wasn’t a similar decline in the rest of the UK; in fact, the problem appears to be getting worse.

This is about voters having more choice – and those choices all having a fair shout. The average number of candidates now standing in Scottish council elections is over 7 – compared to just over 3 under First Past the Post. When ‘wasted votes’ are a thing of the past, so are foregone conclusions.

We need to fix our broken electoral system, a system which denies millions of voters a say. Britain needs a fair way of voting, where seats match votes and where every election is a real contest – not a coronation.

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