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Local Elections: No Change – No Fairer, Yet

May's local elections have shown us one thing: tinkering at the edges of electoral reform is not the way to achieve fairer results or to engage more people in the voting process. Despite all three seats in every ward being up for grabs, the vote in the Sheffield City Council elections on 5May resulted in a return to power of the Labour majority council with just two seats changing hands. This in no way reflects the way in which the people who bothered to vote actually cast their ballot. Only 34.59% of people eligible to vote in Sheffield used that power on polling day. That is even lower than in 2014, the last comparable year (2015 coincided with the General Election). So nearly two-thirds of voters in the city chose not to vote. The reason normally given by those asked the question is that there is no point, because nothing ever changes. This year's elections prove that point. The table below shows what I mean.
No. of Seats Share of seats Share of Votes Fair No. of Seats?
Labour 57 68% 44% 37
Lib Dems 19 22% 23% 19
Greens 4 5% 14% 12
UKIP 4 5% 11% 9
Conservatives 0 0% 6% 5
This is obviously a very crude comparison, but it illustrates the point. With less than half the votes cast, the ruling party gains more than two-thirds of the seats in council and the smaller parties are penalised. The more fragmented nature of modern politics is not fairly served by a voting system that favours the major parties. If people's choices at the ballot box continue not to give them the representation they deserve, is there any wonder they will stop voting? It is also interesting that this fragmentation is already having an effect, despite 'first past the post' voting. Of 124 councils that went to the polls on 5 May, 24 were returned with no overall control. Minority administrations are becoming more prevalent, requiring all parties to consider how to make that potential outcome work, rather than manning the barricades to defend tribalism in politics. Complexity at the polling booth was also a problem this time round. If you happened to be in Brightside or Hillsborough on polling day, you would have voted in three very different ways. For the by-election, a simple one vote, first past the post. For the local elections, three votes but still first past the post. For the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) election, single transferable vote, with two votes expressing a first and second choice. Is it surprising that people were confused? Let's not forget what this is all about. Elections should give each of us confidence that our point of view is being represented fairly in the mix of people that govern us. Again in crude terms, the last local election returned councillors who were voted for by an average of one in four of the electorate or, in the worst case, in the new City Ward by about one in ten potential voters. Is that really any way to be confident in our democracy? @sheffcitynigel )

Next article in issue 99

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