Saturday, May 15, 2021

Tilting at windmills: an opinion about local government elections which will probably annoy everyone:

If anyone at all agrees with the remainder of this post after the first three paragraphs I will be pleasantly surprised. 

Those who are dedicated supporters of Proportional Representation won't like it because it argues that democracy in some council areas will be better served by First Past the Post (FPTP). Dedicated defenders of FPTP  will hate it because it suggests that others would be better served by a Proportional Representation system. 

And those who like things tidy and simple will really hate it because it proposes a mechanism for local choice which would almost inevitably result in different areas choosing different electoral systems. I happen to think that comes with the remit of local democracy/

So I'm flying a kite here on the basis that if I make even one person think it might be a good idea that is worth doing but I do not expect to see any legislation putting this into effect any time soon.

All forms of democracy are imperfect, they merely happen to be much less terrible than any possible alternative. The biggest strength of democracy is that it enables the electorate to get rid of a national or local leadership which has served its time and needs replacing with no violence and a minimum of fuss.

A joke which has been attributed to various people from Mark Twain to Ronald Reagan (the Quote Investigator site credits Dick Nolan) is that political leaders, like a baby's nappy, should be changed regularly and for the same reason. 

Certainly there is a significant correlation between the worst-run councils in the country and those which have been under the same political control for decades. That includes councils which have been "No overall control" for decades because although they can shift in terms of who is running things, this will nearly always be a consequence of a realignment of the existing political groups rather than the votes of the electorate.

The council of which I am currently a member, Cumbria County Council, is a classic example of this. The council has been "No Overall Control" for a long time, and every change in control has owed more to parties changing coalition partners than to changes made by the electorate. Even election results in which large numbers of seats changed hands - like the election when I came onto the council in 2017 - do not necessarily dislodge leaders who have been rejected by the electorate.

There is no such thing as a perfect electoral system. I have not changed my view that First Past the Post has a number of strengths and is the best option for the House of Commons. Nor would I want to see a PR system in those councils where it would probably mean the sort of permanent "no overall control" which is failing very badly in Cumbria at the moment.

However, by the same token, I cannot be happy about those councils where FPTP means that a narrow majority of the vote - or even a large plurality short of an overall majority - gives a single party an almost-permanent lock on a very large majority of the seats.

I would like to see the voters in each council area given the option to choose between FPTP and a suitable form of proportional representation.

My personal view is that the best form of PR is the "Single Transferable Vote" system used in Ireland and in almost every university student union in the country (which means that most politicians with a degree, if they were once student union hacks, are perfectly familiar with it.) 

I could live with what is sometimes called "German PR" or the additional member system (AMS) which is used for a lot of devolved bodies like the Scottish parliament as Tony Blair was quite keen on it -  though it does have some vulnerabilities which Alex Salmond recently made a serious attempt to exploit.

I would argue that once in a generation - let's say every 20 years - a council should be able to hold a referendum to switch between FPTP and an approved form of PR. Such a referendum could be called by a majority of councillors, or by a petition signed by 10% of the electorate (the same percentage required to trigger a ballot on whether you have a directly-elected mayor.)

Those areas where the electorate like the First Past the Post system should be able to keep it. Those who want a proportional system should be able to opt for that.

The following suggestion will be the most controversial part of this article. I would also argue that such a ballot should be triggered automatically if the same single party has had a majority on the council for 20 years or if the council has been "No overall control" for 20 years.

If the electorate are happy to keep the same party in power with the same electoral system practically for ever, that is their choice. But if there has been no change for twenty years, they should have the opportunity to try something different.

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