Tag Archives: electoral reform

Arrogance and stupidity

16 Aug

An excellent article in Tribune arguing that Labour needs to support fair votes.

The penultimate paragraph sums up so much of what frustrates me about the party and its unwillingness to cooperate with other progressive voices (my emphasis added):

In July, a private member’s Bill on PR introduced by Green MP Caroline Lucas was stifled at birth by a just a handful of votes. Labour MPs – under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – were whipped to abstain, and only eight defied the whip and voted in favour. The arrogance of the Labour Party in denying the right of the electorate a fair vote because it sees itself as the only legitimate voice of ‘the left’ is matched only by it’s stupidity in failing to recognise, or at least acknowledge the changed balance of power in British politics, and the fact that without PR, England and Wales face the prospect, with or without a Labour split, of becoming a Tory one-party state.

The cost of one-party councils

20 Oct

Councillor John Gray has blogged about his response to the Electoral Reform Society’s report “The Cost of One-Party Councils: Lack of Electoral Accountability and public procurement corruption”. While he takes issue with one or two of the claims made by the ERS, he is a clear supporter of electoral reform for local authorities.

Most interesting is the final paragraph. This, I think, reflects his experiences over the past five years as a backbench member of the most one-party council of them all:

Finally, I think just as important as electoral reform, local government needs structural and legislative reform. Such as making the role of scrutiny committees much more robust and truly independent of the Executive; beefing up Standard Boards; time limits on Council leaders; stopping backbench Councillors being refused information by Chief officers for no substantiated reasons; being open and transparent and stop restricting information to the public or press unless absolutely necessary; making officers’ hospitality register a public document; better guidance from national political organisations on the role of elected members as being champions of their constituents and holding the Executive to account. Finally, we should reintroduce powers to surcharge individual Councillors who act without due care or legal authority with public money. 

Good stuff.

Getting things in proportion

4 Jun

PR Council

Newham council would look very different under PR

Last week the Hackney Citizen reported that in their borough the Greens would have won seven seats under a proportional voting system, whereas they actually got none – despite getting more than 20% of the vote.  In total PR would have delivered twelve opposition councillors, rather than the seven actually elected (four Tories, three LibDems).

Things in Newham are even worse.

For the second election running, not a single opposition councillor was elected, despite one-third of voters choosing candidates from parties other than Labour. According to the council’s own results webpage, the Conservatives got 24% of the vote.

Using exactly the same analysis as the Hackney Citizen – applying the proportional representation system used in the European elections to the Newham results – the Tories would have won twelve seats, making them the largest opposition group. And, despite standing in only a handful of wards, UKIP would have two councillors.

Labour would have won all three seats in six of the 20 wards – Boleyn, Canning Town North, Forest Gate North, Little Ilford, Stratford & New Town, and West Ham – and two in all the rest. UKIP would have taken a seat in Canning Town South and in Custom House, with the Tories taking a seat in each of the 12 remaining wards.

How did I work this out?

The system used in the European election relies on voters selecting a single party, rather than vote for individual candidates as they do in ‘first past the post’ elections. To get around this I averaged the votes for the candidates for each party. I did this in every ward.  From this I could then apply the D’Hondt method to calculate the results.

Taking Forest Gate South as an example, this is the actual result:

Candidate Party Votes
Masihullah Patel Labour 2209 Elected
Dianne Walls Labour 2095 Elected
Winston Vaughan Labour 2023 Elected
Mahboob Rizu Ahmed Conservative 993
Asif Choudhary Conservative 976
Tim Roll-Pickering Conservative 693
William Heron Liberal Democrat 293
Niall Mulholland TUSC 238
Dieutane Jean Parson Christian Peoples Alliance 179
Malcolm Williamson Christian Peoples Alliance 159
Ionel Vrancianu Independent 101

This gives an average party vote of:

Party Votes
Labour 2109
Conservative 887
Liberal Democrats 293
TUSC 238
CPA 169
Independent 101

Since Labour has the most votes they win the first of the three seats available.

For the second seat the votes for each party are divided by the number of seats they have won, plus 1. So Labour’s vote is divided by two and the other parties are divided by one (so they stay the same), which gives us:

Party Votes
Labour 1055
Conservative 887
Liberal Democrats 293
TUSC 238
CPA 169
Independent 101

Labour still has the most votes and wins the second seat.

For the third and final seat the votes for each party are again divided by the number of seats they have won, plus 1. So now we divide the original Labour vote by three, as it has already won two seats, and the other parties stay the same:

Party Votes
Labour 703
Conservative 887
Liberal Democrats 293
TUSC 238
CPA 169
Independent 101

In this round the Conservatives have the most votes, so they win the last seat. Forest Gate South has two Labour and one Conservative councillor.

A note of caution

These are only approximations since there’s no way of calculating with absolute certainty the result under proportional representation because of the differences between this system and first past the post. There’s also no way of knowing if changing the voting system changes people’s voting behaviour. Or if a different voting system would encourage more parties to stand candidates in more seats.

But it does provide a reasonable basis – using real results and a system actually used in the UK – to argue that our current voting system for local government is broken. It delivers an unfair result and a council that does not truly reflect the diverse political opinions of the community it is meant to serve.

Eight stages of loss

7 May

Yesterday I blogged about the need for electoral reform in local government and mentioned an Electoral Reform Society paper, Towards One Nation: the Labour Case for Electoral Reform.

That features a chapter called ‘Too much of a good thing’ which looks at how ‘safe’ councils with overwhelming majorities for one party are eventually lost. It is worth quoting the section on the process of degeneration at length: long-term residents of Newham will be struck by a sense of familiarity:

1. Taking voters for granted. In an environment where 40% of the vote on a 30% turnout is enough to win a ward, and usually a substantial council majority, a dominant party does not have to be particularly good at contacting the voters in its core areas. Turnout in those areas will tend to fall and the party’s efforts will concentrate on squeezing the other parties out of their remaining footholds.

2. Autocratic style of government. The internal processes of debate and scrutiny on the council start to fail. When opposition parties become too small they will often fall short of the minimum size required to constitute a Group, and therefore lose administrative back-up for their activities. Small opposition parties will find it difficult to look beyond parochial ward issues and mount a full critique of the council administration. Official council business becomes formal, with decisions being taken at best at the majority Group level and often by a Cabinet or just a Leader, with the Group also acting as a rubber stamp.

3. Bad decisions. Concentration of power and a lack of scrutiny lead to bad decisions being taken, and an arrogant attitude towards people who question those bad decisions – be they from the small number of opposition councillors, the local media, independent local bloggers or from within the majority Group.

4. Splits in the ruling party. Factional differences within the majority Group become more common and more divisive, sometimes leading to formal splits with some members going Independent. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a party with a local monopoly on power will often end up manufacturing its own opposition.

5. Hidden electoral weakness. The lack of connection between the leadership of the council, and the lack of effort put into elections, leaves the council majority strong but brittle. Any crisis could trigger the coalescence of a local opposition movement and the lack of engagement with the electorate means that just by going out and listening to voters the new rivals will look good.

6. Electoral collapse. The result will tend to be a sudden and indiscriminate collapse of the previous majority party, and the replacement political force may not be a constructive alternative.

7. Incompetent local government. Electoral collapse will usually be followed by a chaotic period of poor local governance by inexperienced councillors.

8. Recrimination and scandal. Skeletons start falling out of the cupboard about prior errors and scandals during the period of complacency.

This pattern of events, even if not every step of the process takes place, is recognisable in several authorities where Labour had previously held overwhelming majorities on the council including Doncaster, Hull, Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and Slough.

Newham is obviously now at stage 3. From what I hear, stage 4 may be imminent. Disaffected Labour councillors may not formally split off into an independent group, but Sir Robin is not universally loved even within his own party and infighting within the Labour group could lead to significant ructions.

What happens then is anyone’s guess. But it won’t be pretty.

Labour’s interests as a party – and our interests as residents – would be better served by this not happening.

As uncomfortable as it may be for Sir Robin, a democratic opposition exercising its proper function of scrutiny would help his administration deliver honest, efficient local government in our interests – particularly those most in need of high quality public services.

The winner takes it all

6 May

Agnetha is sad

Agnetha is sad because her vote in the Newham council election will be wasted

If history is any guide, on 22 May the Labour party in Newham will win about 65% of the vote and 100% of the seats on the council.

Sir Robin and his band of merry men (and those closest to him are all men) will celebrate a great victory and carry on exactly as before.

The 35% who didn’t vote Labour will again have no voice and no representation. Sir Robin will face no tough questions, no challenge and no scrutiny from anyone who doesn’t already agree with him.

Does it really have to be this way?

As long ago as 1913 the Independent Labour Party, forerunner of today’s Labour party, argued that

“No system of election can be satisfactory which does not give opportunity to all parties to obtain representation in proportion to their strength.”

In January the Electoral Reform Society published Towards One Nation – the Labour Case for Electoral Reform [link downloads a PDF]. The report argues that by tolerating electoral deserts – places like Newham where there are no Tories, Lib Dems or Greens; as well as places where Labour itself has no voice – the party “is colluding in alienating people from political activity.”

Parties only have limited resources of finance and activism, and people understandably grow tired of throwing their money, time and effort at a hopeless cause. The more committed activists may be willing to travel to campaign in a marginal seat, but most people prefer to be active in their own community. 

In Newham, I doubt this argument holds much sway. Who cares if the opposition are demoralised and frustrated? All the better for us! 

But Sir Robin should beware.

Effectively locking a proportion of voters out of representation is bad not only on democratic grounds, but because the withering of opposition does not produce more wholesome politics.

Although Newham has so far been resistant to the far-right, you only need to look to what happened in Barking and Dagenham in 2006 to see the consequences of a complacent and neglectful Labour party with no traditional opposition voices: the election of 12 BNP councillors.

There is also the matter of good governance. As executive mayor Sir Robin has free rein over almost every significant area of policy. All that keeps him in check is oversight and scrutiny from councillors. But where all of those councillors come from the same party, what hope is there for genuine accountability? We know from experience the answer is ‘none.’ 

For 2014 we are stuck with ‘first past the post’ and the continuation of a one-party state. But a Labour government elected in 2015 could change things. And there is hopeful precedent:

Whenever the opportunity has arisen, Labour has recognised the importance of choosing fairer voting systems over First Past the Post. The first Blair government made a positive choice to endow new democratic institutions – both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly – with electoral systems considerably fairer than Westminster’s. And in 2007 a Labour-led coalition introduced the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for local elections in Scotland.

Local government in England struggles with a huge democratic deficit: fewer than half the electorate bothers to vote;  councils that should be the closest to and most engaged political institution with their communities seem remote; and there is little space for new and interesting voices.

The system is ripe for democratic reform and in Newham the need is urgent.