openDemocracyUK

How 300 council seats have been won before any votes are cast

Our broken system means large parts of England have had "democracy cancelled", with hundreds of thousands of voters denied real choice in this May’s elections.

Darren Hughes
18 April 2019
Preparation for counting in last years' council elections
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Victoria Jones/PA Images

300 council seats in England have been guaranteed for one party or individual before a single ballot has been cast, weeks before the May 2nd polling day – affecting around 850,000 potential voters.

How? Nearly 150 councillors will win their seats without a single vote being cast, because candidates are running totally uncontested. They’ve already ‘won’. Around 270,000 potential voters in these ‘democracy deserts’ will be denied their democratic right of expressing a preference about who will represent them locally.

Parties or independent candidates have also been guaranteed an additional 152 seats through multi-member wards going ‘under-contested’ – i.e. where a lack of competition means that at least one seat in the ward is guaranteed for a particular party or independent candidate. There are around a further 580,000 potential voters in wards like these.

The Conservative are set to walk away with 267 of these guaranteed seats – 88% of the total compared to just 17 guaranteed seats for Labour, the Lib Dems 11 and independent candidates five.

There are 74 councils in this round of elections which have either uncontested seats or ‘guaranteed party seats’ where a party is certain to win. That means if you live in England, there’s a fair chance your area will be affected.

Fenland District Council in Cambridgeshire is the worst offender by council, with 12 of the district’s 39 seats going uncontested. That means nearly a third of this year’s council intake will be decided without a single ballot being cast.

There are big regional differences. The East Midlands has the highest number of uncontested seats, followed by the East of England, West Midlands and the South East in close proximity.

Elections are a cornerstone of our democracy. But our broken voting system continues to put power in the hands of the few. The scourge of uncontested seats is leaving hundreds of thousands without even the basic right of a say in who represents them.

The result is councillors who have no proper mandate from the people they serve. This lack of democratic competition is bad for scrutiny, bad for local services and bad for democracy.

How did this happen? In England, elections use the ‘first past the post’ system – where all votes that don’t elect the winner are effectively thrown away. Over many decades, areas become effectively single-party fiefdoms – ‘safe seats’ that seem impossible to challenge. We’ve all heard “x party could put a rosette on a donkey and still get in here”. Equally, we’ve all heard: “Your party can’t win here.”

It turns out, under first past the post, it’s often true – and parties take note, refusing to put resources into ‘unwinnable’ seats. That means whole areas can become electoral wastelands, with voters ignored and denied real choice.

As we’ve seen this can – at the most extreme – lead to parties not even bothering to contests seats and denying voters even a token say in who represents them.

This is why today we see we see hundreds of councillors - nearly all Conservatives - measuring the curtains in town halls across the country before polling day has even begun. A sign of just how dysfunctional our electoral system has become.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Since moving to a proportional voting system [STV] for local elections in 2007, the scourge of uncontested seats has almost vanished in Scotland. Yet voters in England remain restrained by a one-person-takes-all system, where all votes not cast for the one winner go to waste. The result is a worrying number of ‘one party states’. This is a disaster for faith in politics and – as we’ve seen – for competition too. Nowhere should be a ‘no go zone’ for parties.

It’s time we brought the era of rotten boroughs to a close, by scrapping the broken first-past-the-post system in England and ensuring there is always real competition. A more proportional system would end the crisis of local ‘one party states’ and open up our politics at last.

It’s worked in Scotland and the Welsh government is currently consulting on allowing councils to switch to a more proportional voting system. England should follow suit – and now.

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