Is it time for English local government to be elected by single transferable vote? Gordon Matheson and Joanne Harding debate
Last year I stepped down after 17 years as a councillor, including more than five years as leader of Glasgow city council. I was elected on four consecutive occasions; twice under first past the post, and twice under the single transferable vote system. I have a perspective on both.
When I first stood in Glasgow in 1999, Labour won 74 out of 79 councillors. This reflected a strong base of support. It also was the result of the grossly distorting effects of first past the post. With a bit less than half of the votes cast we returned 93 per cent of the councillors.
Fast-forward to the 2015 general election in Scotland. The Scottish National party won the same share of the vote (around half) as Labour had won in Glasgow 16 years before. They returned 95 per cent of Scotland’s members of parliament.
What can we conclude from this?
First, all empires crumble. I am friends with many councillor colleagues across the United Kingdom who still cannot envisage ever losing control of their authorities. We used to think the same in Scotland. Today, Labour is third behind the Tories in the Scottish parliament.
Second, FPTP grossly exaggerates swings in electoral fortunes, which create confusing and sometimes traumatic hiatuses within our democratic systems: things we can ill afford in these populist times.
Proportional representation, on the other hand, moderates against violent fluctuations. It more accurately reflects the public mood – a fundamental requirement of any electoral system – but militates against one-party dominance, on one hand, and wipe-outs of parties who still enjoy solid, if minority, support.
When PR was introduced to Scottish local government in 2007 by the then Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood, many Labour councillors believed that our parliamentary colleagues had ‘sold out’. Why on earth would we surrender electoral hegemony, especially in west-central Scotland? PR, it was claimed, was a shameful example of the Liberal Democrat tail wagging the Labour dog.
Today, Labour’s revival in Scotland will be built to a large degree on the core of Labour members of the Scottish parliament and councillors who owe their electoral survival to PR. I assume they thank their lucky stars that, unlike their Westminster colleagues, they have not had to contest FPTP elections recently.
Moreover, in areas of the country where Labour rarely or never wins under FPTP, PR has provided the opportunity to elect some of our candidates, sometimes for the first time. I know of cases where even one Labour councillor has been sufficient to advance progressive agendas such as the living wage and community-benefit clauses in council procurement contracts.
It is of course still possible to win a majority under a proportional system. I know because I did it. In 2012, I led Labour in Glasgow to a notable overall victory at a time when most commentators expected the SNP to take control of Labour’s Scottish heartland.
We won that election on the basis of our record, vision for the city, our broad appealing manifesto and a vigorously efficient campaign machine powered by a lot of hard work. The competitiveness of PR certainly puts an end to any complacency that can sometimes affect local parties.
Crucially, we had the votes. If parties enjoy high levels of support they will flourish under PR. If they do not, they do not deserve to overwhelmingly win. Surely that is self-evident for progressives.
Gordon Matheson was leader of Glasgow city council from May 2010 to September 2015
I believe that absolutely every vote counts. It is always a huge disappointment to me when out campaigning to hear ‘I will not be voting as you lot are all the same’, especially from women.
That is why I would rather engage on a voter engagement drive than look to change our current voting system to proportional representation. I would even go as far as to say making voting mandatory, as I feel it is incumbent upon all of us to address the democratic deficit … though I know some might say this is not very democratic at all!
PR also places an even greater stress on the electorate to have an extended knowledge of who each candidate is and the policy platform on which they stand. The very thing electoral reformers are hoping to achieve may well mean that voters are turned off with too much information with a PR system.
I do not doubt the supporters of PR systems want every vote to count, but in Australia where voters have to order candidates in order of preference, six per cent of ballot are classed as invalid. These are invariably from those from poorer backgrounds and those with English as a second language. In London, where voters get a second preference, only 46 per cent of those who did not pick one of the top two candidates used their ‘supplementary vote’. There is even confusion over the alternative vote system Labour uses for its own leadership elections among some members of parliament, which suggests that political awareness does not necessarily lead to comprehension.
I can tell you as an opposition councillor it is hard enough trying to get things done when battling with the ruling group. PR, I feel, would make things so much more difficult. We will end up with political alliances with PR, and while I know some Labour supporters think that would be positive for our politics, I think the ‘rainbow coalition’ model would actually stall decision making. The coalition governments that PR often produces can at times be weak and indecisive as individual party battle lines are drawn. Residents do not want indecision and legislative paralysis they expect local government to provide leadership and direction.
More importantly it mean that who actually runs you council is not a decision for your electorate but a deal stitched together behind closed doors. Policies voters might passionately have voted for get brushed under the carpet. Coalitions can be between obvious bedfellows or, at times, political foes; either way the voter is trapped out for four year having not got what they wanted.
There is also the other fear often made mention of around accessibility of extremist groups being part of mainstream politics, this happens much less often under first past the post. Where this has happened, like in Stoke-on-Trent in the late 2000s, parties had to work together to keep the British National party away from the leaders of power. Noble as it was, it left the BNP as the official opposition for a short while – a situation I do not want to see repeated elsewhere.
I believe in democracy. I believe the electorate deserves stable local government. As we face yet more budget cuts meted down from this Conservative government, local Labour councillors are stepping up to fight and advocate for their residents and making bold and innovative decisions. This should not be diluted, in fact we should be fighting as a party to ensure we return yet more Labour party councillors who can be that strong voice in our communities.
Joanne Harding is a councillor on Trafford council and member of the Progress strategy board