£2.6bn: the price of an unfair voting system

The first past the post electoral system can result in undemocratic and potentially corrupted one-party councils. We need electoral reform for local government in England and Wales.

Josiah Mortimer
13 October 2015
electoral reform.jpg

Flickr/ William Murphy. Some rights reserved.For a long time it’s been clear that Britain’s first past the post voting system is hugely damaging for our democracy. But a new study has just shown that it’s damaging for our finances too – and poses big risks when it comes to corruption.

Councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6bn a year through a lack of scrutiny of their procurement processes, according to a University of Cambridge analysis for the Electoral Reform Society.

Some of these local ‘one-party states’ – a product of our winner-takes-all voting system - could be getting away with poor practice when it comes to procurement, with little opposition in council chambers to point it out.

The study, undertaken by Cambridge University academic Mihály Fazekas, is titled The Cost of One-Party Councils and looks at the savings in contracting between councils dominated by a single party —or with a significant number of uncontested seats— and more competitive councils.

It finds that ‘one-party councils’ could be missing out on savings of around £2.6bn when compared to their more competitive counterparts - most likely due to a lack of scrutiny. £2.6bn is a lot of potential extra cash for our struggling authorities. At the ERS, we worked out just what this could be spent on:

  1. Building 271 new schools 
  2. Hiring more than 90,000 social workers 
  3. Keeping open 10,511 public libraries
  4. Buying 68,421 used refuse trucks for cash-strapped councils

The report also measures councils’ procurement process against a ‘Corruption Risk Index’ - and finds that one-party councils are around 50% more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils. The corruption risk of competitive councils compared to those dominated by one party is similar to the difference between the average Swedish municipality and the average Estonian municipality. This doesn’t bode well for democracy or council coffers.

The research is no small-scale study. It uses ‘big data’ to look at 132,000 public procurement contracts between 2009 and 2013 to identify ‘red flags’ for corruption, such as where only a single bid is submitted or there is a shortened length of time between advertising the bid and the submission deadline. And the results are stark.

Both the problem and the solution are clear to identify. One-party councils come about because of the distorting effects of first past the post in local elections. The answer is for England and Wales to adopt the Single Transferable Vote system used in Scotland for electing local councils. In Scotland it has been shown to completely end the phenomena of one-party councils and uncontested seats - and could result in significant public savings, by increasing levels of scrutiny and lowering councils’ risk of dodgy dealings. At the same time, voter satisfaction is greatly improved, and the number of wasted votes shrinks to negligible levels. 

These findings make sense really. When single parties have almost complete control of councils, scrutiny and accountability tend to suffer. The £2.6bn potential wastage is a damning indictment of an electoral system that gives huge artificial majorities to parties and undermines scrutiny. Alarm bells should be ringing in Whitehall.

This is yet another reason why first past the post is unfit for purpose. With parties able to win the vast majority of seats often on a minority of the vote (and on tiny turnouts), scrutiny suffers. A fairer voting system would make ‘one-party states’ a thing of the past, and could lead to substantial savings for citizens.

We think it’s time politicians from all parties woke up to the need for a fairer voting system. First past the post is hurting our democracy – and now we’ve discovered it’s a financial disaster too.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals

To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.

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