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PR at a local level, How would it work?

"In a PR system the Liberals & Greens would have gained, with the main parties losing out. "

This blog post seeks to outline how a proportional representation voting system could work at the most local level of government, a borough council. It outlines how seats could be awarded based upon the number of votes cast, and from this how candidates for the parties who contest the election could be elected. The blog post focuses upon how a form of party-list system could be implemented at a borough level and uses the historic borough of Hastings as an example. This system type is chosen as it still keeps the First Past the Post (FPTP) principle of one member one vote, whilst also ensuring proportionately. Instead of using 16 wards to elect 16 councillors it alternatively handles the entire borough as one council ward that holds 16 representatives, thus enabling proportionately in voter representation. This will therefore not confuse voters familiar with FPTP and its one-vote system, yet at the same time enable wider representation.

What system?

The system which is proposed here is the Israeli electoral system, also known as a closed list, party-list proportional representation system. In this system voters still have one vote, but rather than voting for specific candidates in designated wards individuals cast ballots for parties. This system could also accommodate officially registered independent groups who do not wish to stand under party labels but do want to campaign on local issues. After polling day, the votes are then counted and seats are awarded based on the percentage of votes cast for the parties who stood. The number of seats awarded to each party will define how many councillors each party is awarded which candidates are elected. Parties would choose the list of candidates before the designated deadline and the individuals elected as councillors would be those highest up the parties' selected list. For example, if a party won four seats the first four candidates on this party's list would be elected, any individuals lower are not elected. The list of candidates for each party could be made public before the election if deemed desirable.

Such a system can set a minimum threshold required to gain representation, such a 5% of votes for instance. Parties that do not get this threshold of votes are not awarded any seats, nor retain their deposit. This rule is designed to ensure fairness, whilst also avoiding giving representation to extremist voices, especially those with limited support and funding.

How could it work at a borough level?

Figure 1 - Difference between FPTP system and PR in terms of wards fought (mapped).

The recent borough council elections in Hastings elected 16 councillors, one for each separate borough ward. Rather than individuals standing in one designated ward parties would stand for the borough of Hastings, which would elect 16 candidates. Parties would list the candidates to be elected, 1 - 16, and if they won four seats candidates listed from 1 - 4 would be elected as a councillor. If their main opposition party won six seats then the individuals standing for this party who were listed in the top 6 of their nominated candidates would be elected as councillors. For a smaller party, if they won 2 seats then their top two listed candidates would be elected as councillors, and so on.

Hastings 2021 Borough elections:

The results for the 2021 Hastings borough council elections would therefore redistribute seats as followed:

Under this given PR system the Conservative and Labour Party would have received fewer seats in the 2021 Hastings borough local elections, with the Greens and Lib-Dems receiving more. As figure two below shows, this system would award seats in a much more reflective way to how individuals voted. Therefore, this system could register peoples most preferred party, whilst at the same time awarding seats more proportionately. In this given scenario the Greens could work with Labour or the Conservatives on an issue by issue basis. Alternatively, the Greens could choose to enter a coalition with the party who offered them the most generous offer, and in return, they could give this main party the three votes they need for a majority. In this system an additional seat could be awarded to the winning party to ensure a winner was always established, in this case, the Tories, moving them up to 7. In the event of seats not being easily divisible into 16, the one leftover seat could again be awarded to the party who gained the most votes as a winners bonus.

Figure 2 - Comparing seat share to vote share in the 2021 HBC elections (which uses a majoritarian system).

What about the elected representative-voter connection?

Under FPTP it is clear who a voter should contact, and therefore who is responsible for local issues that are cornered about. Moreover, there is a clear assignment of casework for pressing problems constituents have, such as housing problems. Under the closed-list system, this is not the case.

Under the proposed PR system this would have to work differently. Instead, the parties would each be allocated casework based upon who the voters wanted to deal with their problem. The parties casework contact details would be made public on the council's website, with the parties also having an incentive to make their contact details publicly available. The voter wanting to contact their local representative could therefore choose which party they would like to deal with their case, meaning they would be able to contact the party they voted for in the previous election, which the current system does not always allow for. Moreover, they could contact more than one party if they feel their chosen party is not representing, or ignoring them. This could therefore encourage parties to compete over cases and representing people, thus driving up the quality of responses residents receive from their elected officials. Again, parties would have an incentive to respond to casework quickly and effectively as if other parties do a better job than they do this could lead to bad electoral consequences in the next election.

Theorised benefits summary:

  • It can be considered to be fairer.

  • It could waste fewer voters and increase ignored voters power. As all voters will count equally, in terms of how seats are distributed, this could cause parties to widen their appeal. This might also help increase turnout.

  • Parties would have an incentive to select a more diverse range of candidates, so to appeal to a wider set of voters. Parties who fail to do this may suffer electorally, thus helping to increase minority representation at a local level.

  • Parties, at least in theory, would have an incentive to compete over casework, thus potentially improving the quality of responses individuals get from their elected officials.

  • It will elect new people with different voices (even potentially giving some of them power), thus allowing for a greater diverse range of topics to be discussed and addressed.

  • In theory, it will make it easier to remove majority administrations who have clearly lost support. Therefore, in general, it is argued that such a system gives voters more power.

  • The current system does limit independent voices as candidates have to win a specific ward, where only some of the local issues they campaign around are present, potentially limiting the effectiveness of the message they have. This PR system will allow such groups a better platform to campaign on.

  • It might encourage lower levels of tactical voting, as people might feel more confident in voting for the party they want.

  • It could help cut campaigning costs for parties, potentially helping candidates with fewer resources. As parties would only be focusing their message on one constituency, rather than 16, this could help reduce campaigning costs, such as leaflet production costs. It could also help cut election costs for HBC as one election every 4 years that divides 32 seats based upon one poll would be easier and cheaper to deliver than the current biannual 16 ward election system HBC currently uses.

  • It is simpler and more like the FPTP system voters are used to than compared to other PR systems, which can get very complicated. Voters therefore can understand this system, whilst results are still transparent and easier to understand.

Drawbacks summary:

Yet, it should be noted that such a change in the electoral system would not be without its problems, which could be as followed:

  • Parties can repeatedly select the same candidates at the top of their list, therefore surviving public backlash against unpopular decisions taken. (It should be noted this can also occur in FPTP when leaders are given very safe seats).

  • Minority candidates can sometimes find it harder to get towards the top of the list, meaning they miss out on being elected just as they do in majoritarian systems.

  • Rather than working together, parties can squabble, meaning no decisions are taken, weakening the ability of voters to make decisions that are implemented.

  • Coalition agreements can sometimes mean that parties that win do not, in the end, form the cabinet, which instead is formed by a coalition of the 2nd and 3rd party. If this repeatedly occurs across several electoral cycles the largest minority can feel that their vote does not matter.

  • There is not a one councillor per ward system, making it harder for voters to know who to contact about local matters a councillor can deal with. Parties avoid electoral punishment if they can successfully blame other parties for their mistakes. This can also be the case for confusion around manifesto commitments, which often get dropped in backroom coalition talks the public are not privy to.

  • There is not a one councillor per ward system, making it harder for voters to know who to contact about local matters a councillor can deal with.

  • No evidence the British (and especially English) electorate support such a system compared to FPTP.

  • Another argument against PR is that it does not reflect what people want as smaller parties often do not agree on many things. Instead, it is argued that larger parties that reflect the largest minorities are the best solution that come out of a very divided public.

Note: The above article has been an outline to how PR could be implemented at a local level in the UK and is not expressing personal views on the question of if PR should be implemented, or not.

James Prentice, Capture politics, 15/05/2021.

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