Keep First Past the Post for Scottish local elections

An article by Gavin Strang MP in Campaign Group News

The debate over electoral reform for local government in Scotland is gathering pace.

In 1999 Labour promised the Liberal Democrats, our coalition partners in Scotland, that a programme of change for local democracy would be brought forward including progress on electoral reform. The McIntosh Commission then recommended proportional representation (PR), and while the Kerley Working Group was unable to produce a unanimous report, the majority recommended a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.

A White Paper is promised before Easter, and there will be a consultation within the Labour Party.

The advantages of First Past the Post (FPTP) for local government in Scotland are very clear to me.

Firstly, the constituency link – the bond between councillor and ward – is at its strongest under FPTP. Under the current single-councillor system in Scotland, each ward has one councillor, so every constituent can ascertain easily who is accountable to them and who they should go to with local issues. Under many PR systems there would be councillors who are not tied to any one ward, and under the STV system favoured by the majority of the Kerley Working Party, multi-member wards will be required. We have had multi-member wards in the past in Scotland, and they are the norm in much of England. It is my view that single member wards give a more clearcut accountability between councillors and their constituents.

Secondly – and importantly for Labour Party members – First Past the Post lends itself to local party involvement and influence. By and large, local party members select their local candidate. PR systems tend to entail a significant amount of central party influence – and our experience of central party involvement in candidate selection in Scotland has not been a happy one.

Thirdly, FPTP is simple, easily understood and delivers clear-cut results. If we want to enhance voters’ involvement in local elections, it is imperative that we keep the electoral system accessible. I do not see how using a system like STV, where the successful candidate may depend, for example, on the second choices of people who voted for the least popular candidate, will move us in the right direction.

Finally, First Past the Post is far better than PR systems at delivering a clear majority result – PR systems make hung councils far more likely. There are several reasons why I believe we should steer away from making hung councils the norm:

Hung councils give third parties a disproportionate amount of power. An unpopular party can choose the nature of the administration by choosing which party to enter into coalition with. This reflects the wishes of very few of the electorate.

It is harder for an electorate to vote an unpopular administration out of power. A coalition in a council can suffer quite substantial swings against it in an election, but still remain in power.

If a party gains a majority in a council at an election, it does so on a manifesto, written in black and white and put to the voters. There is clear democratic advantage to this: the electorate can hold that party’s Councillors to account against that manifesto. And the ruling party has the opportunity to implement its manifesto. But if the party has to go into coalition with another party, the authority of the manifesto is greatly weakened, and indeed there is a ready-made excuse for jettisoning more awkward commitments.

Proponents of PR often state that PR is more democratic than FPTP. But the likely effect of PR – the hung council – is to have the nature and policies of the administration taken away from the ballot box and the manifesto, and shoved into the legendary smoke-filled room.

I will not pretend that First Past the Post does not throw up anomalous results from time to time. All electoral systems do.

But there are great benefits from FPTP that no one PR system can give us – the constituency link, accessibility, local party involvement, more clear-cut results. I fear that to ditch the benefits of First Past the Post in favour of PR would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater.