By Kent Barker

Is there a case for the proposition that a hung Council better represents and better serves its electors than one where a single party has a substantial majority?

In the 2021 local Council elections in Hastings, when half the seats were contested, the Conservatives won the largest proportion of the votes – 39% to Labour’s 34%. Yet Labour retained overall control of the council. In the same election the Green party came third with 18% of the vote and yet ended up with only two seats on the council.

This May conversely, with the other 50% of seats up for grabs, Labour won the largest share of votes – 42% – yet lost overall control – They now have 15 seats to the Conservatives 12 and the Greens 5.

For those that have supported the Labour council’s 12-year stint in power this will be bad news. But for others, who have been less enamoured with their policies, the change will be welcome. Either way, the council will now have to be more responsive to ‘minority’ concerns – particularly those of the Green Party whose 23% of the vote this May gained them another 3 seats and ensures them a powerful voice holding the balance of power. However, Labour still retain the greatest number of seats and that the Greens would have to vote with the Conservatives in order to defeat them on any particular issue.

A former leader of the Conservative controlled Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, argued that a NOC (No Overall Control) council was both more representative and – curiously – easier to run. “I have more difficulty keeping my own party in line than I do the opposition parties,” he told me, explaining that the large majority enabled Conservative councillors to act ideologically, while the minority parties had to be pragmatic and really consider what was best for their electors. Sadly – for him – the Tories lost control of TWBC in May and he stepped down as leader.

Much of this disconnect comes down to the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. We’ve seen in Hastings how the proportion of the overall vote seldom translates into seats won or that party winning power. If it’s true for local democracy it’s even more so for our national parliament. 

In the last (2019) election The Conservative’s share of the overall UK vote was 43.6%, but their share of seats was 56.2% – 12.6 percentage points higher. In Scotland the SNP got fewer than half the votes – 45% – but a whopping 81% of Scottish seats. As usual the smaller parties came off worst. The Liberal Democrats got 11.5% of the votes, but only 1.7% of the seats while the Greens got 2.7% of votes but 0.2% of the seats. The Brexit party fared even worse with 2% of the vote and no seats. 

Voting is a Waste of Time

If these figures demonstrate anything it is that an awful lot of people rightly feel that going to the polling station and voting is a waste of time. A clear (clearer than Brexit) majority – just over 56 out of every hundred of us – did NOT vote for Boris Johnson and his Conservatives and yet they got a whopping majority of 80 seats – and of course pushed through the hardest of withdrawals from Europe. 

The first past the post system is basically unfair and, by the proper definition of the word, undemocratic. This is not rule by the ‘power of the citizen’ nor does it properly demonstrate ‘will of the people’.

So what to do about it? Clearly some version of proportional representation is urgently needed. The problem is which one – and how to explain and sell it to the electorate. The extraordinarily vague referendum question in 2011 asked simply – should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead of first past the post – without explaining either concept. The result was, unsurprisingly, a substantial majority for the status quo. But there was not much of a campaign for change – largely because the main proponents for PR, the Liberal Democrats, were at the time basking in power as part of the David Cameron coalition government. 

So that’s it then? PR is dead in the UK? Well, not exactly. In Scotland the Single Transferable Vote is used for council elections. In Northern Ireland it’s used for councils and the devolved assembly. The Scottish, Welsh and London assemblies all use the Additional Member system. When, pre-Bexit, we voted for the European Parliament it was by regional list PR. It means we are perfectly used to proportional voting systems. It’s just that we somehow fail to operate a fair system to our national parliament or, for the upper chamber, any electoral system at all! The Lords are mainly appointed, with a few still sitting as hereditary or Church of England peers – a less democratic or more archaic system is hard to imagine.

And Britain’s so called ‘mother of parliaments’ is way out of line with the rest of the world. Some two-thirds of national legislatures are elected by a form of proportional representation. 

The traditional argument against PR is that it produces weak or ineffective coalition governments. But perhaps that’s no bad thing if it means that parties with a large majority can’t just bulldoze unpopular measures through parliament – the so called elective dictatorship. An element of consensus must, surely, be a good thing. In Westminster as well as in Hastings.

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