First Past the Post fails English local democracy – this time it’s different

By Richard Wood

Another set of local elections in England has left a bad taste in the mouths of better democracy campaigners. Yet this time is slightly different. This time – instead of the same old story of unrepresentative councils across the country – we have taken a significant step backwards when it comes to local democracy.

We can debate the merits of directly elected executive mayors another time but if we are to have them – which England does – they should have broad mandates. Until the Elections Act (2022), these mayors were elected via the Supplementary Vote (SV) system.

The SV system isn’t perfect but it gave mayors broad mandates, a crucial check on directly elected executive positions. Instead of making positive reforms, the Conservatives’ regressive Elections Act scrapped this system and imposed First Past the Post on mayoralties across England.

SEE MORE: Elected mayors in Scotland: is now the time for Aberdeen’s Andy Burnham?

The effects of this regressive reform are now being seen following 2023’s local election results.

Voters in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough all elected mayors under First Past the Post for the First time:

  • The new Bedford mayor, Conservative challenger Tom Wooton, was elected on just 33.1% of the vote.
  • Leicester mayor, Labour incumbent Peter Soulsby, was elected on just 39.3% of the vote.
  • Mansfield mayor, Labour incumbent Andy Abrahams, was elected on just 45.1% of the vote.
  • Middlesborough mayor, Labour challenger Chris Cooke, was elected on just 40.2% of the vote.

SEE MORE: 5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

The situation will be far worse in 2024 when metro mayors and Police and Crime Commissioner elections are scheduled. Crucially, 2024 will see the first London mayoral election held under First Past the Post.

Again, the Supplementary Vote wasn’t perfect but it allowed for successful candidates to secure their mandates with broad support. Instead of imposing First Past the Post on mayoralties, the government should have improved the system by implementing the Alternative Vote for mayoral positions. AV would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference and give directly elected executive mayors broad mandates.

Instead, this development comes on top of the usual story of unrepresentative councils thanks to First Past the Post. Right across England councils were elected with seat shares not reflective of vote shares. English local democracy should be upgrade more widely via the introducing of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for council elections.

The Lib-Lab coalition of 2003 – 2007 did this in north of the border. Scottish local democracy’s success story since 2007 is undeniable. The country no longer has “one-party state” councils and has a vibrant multi-party democracy at the local level where how people vote at the ballot box is reflected in local councils.

Northern Irish local elections take place in two weeks time using STV. These elections will be a welcome contrast to those we saw in England at the start of the month.

A Conservative government at Westminster isn’t going to upgrade English local democracy any time soon. But the next Westminster power arrangement – possibly some combination of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs – should look to the Scottish and Northern Irish success stories and upgrade England’s local politics. Preferential voting for both mayors and councillors would be a major leap forward. This year’s elections once again show that change is needed.

SEE MORE: Scotland’s STV council elections show England a better way of doing local democracy

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