Those campaigning in the local elections last week will have been well aware of the political significance of the alphabet. “Remember you have three votes,” is the mantra. Yet still they forget. They gaze down the ballot paper and vote for the first Conservative (or Labour or Lib Dem) candidate they see. They put a cross in the box next to that name and, feeling they have completed their civic duty, depart the polling station. Thus Cllr Aardvark has an inherent advantage over Cllr Zebedee.
But this alphabetic discrimination is one of the more trivial reasons that multi-member wards should be replaced by smaller single member wards. Indeed, the electoral confusion is often resolved in councils outside London by having a third of seats contested each year. That has the even worse consequence of weak Government and short termist thinking.
The current multi-member ward arrangements allows idle councillors to coast along allowing their more industrious colleagues to do all the work. I have written previously about how abolition of councillor allowances would probably mean, overall, an enhanced standard of representation as deadbeats would not have the inclination to cling on for the money. But the multi member ward arrangements also makes it much easier for people to continue as passengers making no tangible contribution. If an issue is raised by email to all three ward councillor then it is easy enough for one councillor to leave it for another to pursue.
Indeed, if you have three energetic councillors there is the opposite difficulty of duplication – with perhaps contradictory demands being made to the hapless council official responsible for the matter.
I would favour a reform that reduced the total number of councillors but also reduced the area that each remaining councillor had to cover. So ward boundaries could be redrawn so that: a broad guide, instead of 8,000 people being represented by three councillors, there would be 4,000 represented by one councillor.
There would be more individual accountability. It would not make the arrangement perfect. If you have a concern at present it is rather bad luck if all three are councillors ignore you. If you only have one councillor and he or she can’t be bothered to reply to your email, which might be over a serious difficulty, then that is a remedy that is denied to you. On the other hand, the prospect of councillors who regularly adopt that pattern of behaviour being ejected by the electorate is much higher. There would be a higher premium on local candidates – with smaller wards you would be more likely to know if a candidate lived in the area or not.
I can understand how political parties might find it less convenient. There is already difficulty trying to arrange selection by membership in a ward – due to the shortage of members. A smaller ward would have fewer members. Also where an ineffective councillor was left in place it would be much easier in a smaller ward for an independent to defeat them. Yet those are healthy pressures for the political parties to face. Where they can manage a strong and representative membership and find capable and hard working council candidates they will be able to overcome such challenges. Where they can’t they don’t deserve to.
A final point is that single member wards would make it much harder for single party states to remain. There are some councils in London that only have Labour councillors. They are Barking and Dagenham, Lewisham and Newham. It could be worse, of course. Conservatives are still represented in such places as Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, Brent and Hackney. In Haringey the split in the Labour Party allowed the Lib Dems to make gains.
Then we have the Conservative no-go zones outside London. In Sheffield’s Stocksbridge and Upper Don Ward the Conservative candidate lost by 711.Or in Manchester’s Brooklands Ward where the Conservative candidate lost by 723.
Of course the Conservatives would probably still have lost. There are all sorts of factors – such as where the boundaries were placed, whether the situation was shaken up by new independent candidates coming forward and so on. Perhaps there would be more places where the Lib Dems would have a greater chance of taking Labour seats. Yet at the very least the the monolithic one Party states would be a bit less secure.
A requirement for single member wards would be a bold reform that would reinvigorate our local democracy, make elections fairer, and provide for more effective accountability. Despite the vested interests and inertia that would mean resistance to such a reform, the case for it is compelling.