Charley Jarrett has been a member of the Lambeth Conservatives for fourteen years, where he was a candidate in 2014 and 2018. He is also the policy and public affairs officer of the Electoral Reform Society.
Most the problems Harry Phibbs identified last week, in calling for multi-member wards to be abolished, would be resolved – and often better resolved – with a shift to the voting system used in Scottish and Northern Irish local elections.
STV is a candidate-centred preferential voting system, with a strong constituency link, where multi-member districts elect several representatives. As Phibbs identifies, Labour has won every single seat in Newham three elections in a row – often on 60 per cent of the vote.
While this makes them worthy of a majority, it does not make them worthy of having no opposition whatsoever.
Under STV, in a three-member ward where a Conservative candidate could get over a quarter of the votes, they would be elected, providing our voters with the representation they deserve – representation so often locked out under the current system.
The Electoral Reform Society has long argued that the expense and bureaucracy of running elections three years in every four, for three-up–one-down councils, should end – not least as they also result in lower turnout, as voters get election fatigue. STV would end this.
And it would also reduce the practice of free-riding councillors. As Conservatives, we know the value of competition in driving up standards. STV nurtures this competition. With single-member wards, there would still be uncompetitive seats where an incumbent councillor is all but guaranteed re-election, simply because of their party label. They are a closed list of one.
Yet with STV, incumbents and newcomers alike would need to compete – in picking up casework, championing local issues and ensuring excellent service provision – not just against candidates from other parties, but from their own too, to ensure their election.
The stitch-up of uncompetitive wards (whether elected by voters using one ‘x’ or three) in the single-member ward proposal would not help many London Conservatives who want to represent their neighbourhood, no matter how much they might want to do so, if they live in one of our city’s many areas dominated by Labour even during years when the swing is in our favour. A proportional distribution of seats within multi-member wards would achieve this more effectively.
The strongest argument against multi-member constituencies Phibbs highlights is on alphabetical bias – or ‘donkey voting’. But there are less drastic solutions to this than moving to single-member wards – such as randomising the order candidates appear on the ballot paper, as happens in Australia.
Proportional voting in Scotland, including STV for locals, sustained our party in Holyrood and in town halls, even during our Westminster-level wipe-out – laying the ground for last June’s spectacular comeback.
Phibbs muses that half-sized single-member districting might have produced Conservative winners on Thursday, in wards where we lost by a few hundred votes.
Perhaps he has more intimate knowledge of their activists’ polling district tallies than I do, but I would much prefer STV’s guarantee that if a hardworking Conservative candidate can get more than a quarter of the votes in a three-member ward, those voters would get a Conservative councillor. Indeed, Rahima Khan, our Mayoral candidate in Newham, has joined Conservative Action for Electoral Reform’s calls for local PR.
Ending one-party states is good for people not just as voters, but as taxpayers too. As I have mentioned previously on Conservative Home, research shows that ‘one-party state’ councils are missing out on £2.6 billion a year in savings – research I was pleased to see local Tories using in our election literature this year, in Lambeth and in Camden.
We have identified the problem: now let’s embrace the solution, and introduce a truly competitive system for council elections.