Dr Spencer Pitfield is the National Voluntary Director of the Conservative Policy Forum
Years of discussions with colleagues on possible voting reform options – all be it here relating only to local elections – has told me that such policy topics are not the easiest to bring forward. Dare I say perhaps even a taboo policy area – the orthodoxy preferring to stay with First Past the Post (FPTP) in favour of Proportional Representation (PR); PR being in the local context Single Transferable Vote (STV).
Here in my home City of Sheffield – but also in major other conurbations like Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Manchester and Gateshead to name but three – local share of the vote of 14.6% in 2010 returned no City Council representation for the Party.
Indeed, across Sheffield as a whole nearly 35,000 votes were cast for the Conservatives in the General Election (five parliamentary constituencies) but because of the spread of votes this too resulted in not a single parliamentary success – sadly this lack of success on a parliamentary level was reflected across the whole of South Yorkshire, an area of some two million people.
So why might it be a problem that across large swathes of the country Conservative councillors have been largely expelled from local Government? Well put simplistically councillors equate to activists, which no doubt help to then increase Conservative support locally, further leading perhaps to greater electoral success. Elected representation of course offers legitimacy – an issue often faced here in Sheffield, and I presume other northern Cities, when I speak on behalf of our Party – it is difficult to resonate with the electorate if a mandate has not been achieved.
Given the considerable distrust of politics and politicians in our country I have little doubt that at least on a local election level support of a PR system would give voters more choice and at the same time ensure that fewer votes are ‘wasted’ in ultra-safe seats where parties remain entrenched and unchallenged. This monopoly of control is not good for anyone – for the party in power, which can take its eye off the ball, or for the area controlled by local authorities that effectively operate as one party ‘states’. These unaccountable voids in our local Governance system can, as we have seen all to often, create major problems which are to the huge cost of the local communities they aim to serve.
A recent report for the Electoral Reform Society ‘Northern Blues, The Conservative case for Local Electoral Reform’ makes a powerful argument that the Party should consider local election reform. Not least because societal changes have no doubt resulted in an increasing polarisation of our British regions. The report authors state quite directly that if the Party is to fight the trend of further ‘isolation’ in the North – and by inference here other parts of the United Kingdom where the Conservative voice has declined to almost electoral insignificance – the introduction of a proportional system into local elections would immediately give back a Voice (however small) to those wishing to express a Conservative viewpoint.
The Electoral Reform paper concludes: “Perhaps the time has come for the Conservatives to advocate both the pragmatic and the principled thing to do – and that is to introduce a fairer voting system into local elections”. You will no doubt have your own view on reading this brief article – all I ask is that we at the very least consider carefully the opportunity such an approach on the local level might offer as we aspire to represent and serve all people across our country.