I have two interests to declare: I have been a Conservative Party member for a little over a decade and I work for the Electoral Reform Society. This sometimes raises eyebrows. However – to coin a phrase – I don’t support electoral reform despite being a Conservative, I support it because I am a Conservative. A new report, showing how local council reform could save the taxpayer £2.6 billion per year, has added to my list of reasons.
I was born in Southwark and live in Lambeth. It is frustrating that after each election my only vote that helps secure a Conservative representative is that for the London-wide List of Assembly Members or for the Mayor. Indeed, these frustrations are felt even more acutely by Conservatives throughout much of the urban North. We live in Labour wards in Labour-run councils and after each general election we are surrounded by a sea of Red.
In Manchester and Newham in 2014, the Conservatives got 8% and 22% of the votes and 0 councillors. Labour did well by getting 57% and 60% of the votes – but that doesn’t really warrant taking 100% of the seats. If 20% of voters in a local area are Conservatives then about 20% of their councillors should be Conservative – certainly, they should have more than 0!
Further powers are soon to be devolved to combined authorities in the Labour-run North – to be wielded, in all likelihood, by Labour metro-mayors. With Labour priorities and policies. Scrutinised by Labour councillors. As Conservatives, surely we should want to see Tory voters represented by Tory councillors, fighting for decision-making and spending to be conducted with Tory responsibility.
On Sunday at Party Conference, the Society launched a new report written by Cambridge academic Dr Mihály Fazekas for the ERS. In it, he finds that undersized oppositions on councils are bad for fiscal restraint regardless of which party is being kept out of the town hall.
As I have written elsewhere, over 100 councils in England currently have two-thirds or more of their councillors from one party, who are able to rush through decisions and amend standing orders with little if any scrutiny or opposition. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 382 uncontested elections in wards. In contrast, since STV was introduced in 2007 for Scottish local elections, not a single council is now a ‘one-party state’, and not a single ward has gone uncontested (compared to dozens before).
In The Cost of One-Party Councils, Fazekas’ research suggests £2.6 billion could be saved each year if there were no uncontested wards and councils had decent-sized, democratically representative, oppositions. If greater spending power is to be devolved to combined authorities, it is difficult to see this figure improving without an improvement in the electoral system. As in Scotland, Wales and London – the precedent is that the devolution of powers from Westminster to elsewhere has always gone hand-in-hand with a move to a more proportional voting system.
At the Society, we favour the Single Transferable Vote. Invented by Victorian polymath and Conservative lawyer Thomas Hare, the system retains the constituency link and is based on candidates rather than party lists. Voters are represented by a team of councillors (as is presently the case in many councils’ multi-member wards). Conservatives would still control many of the councils we currently dominate, despite some loss of seats. In exchange, Conservative voters in Inner London, the urban North and other Labour hotbeds would be rewarded with the Conservative Councillors for whom they voted – benefitting both our activist base and the public purse.
Dan Hannan and Peter Oborne are amongst those reviving the right-of-centre movement for a more proportional voting system. This report further proves the case for being a Conservative and a supporter of electoral reform.