STV in local government – the Scottish example

This first-hand account of the effect of STV on Scottish local government is by Andrew Burns, Chair of Fairshare and an Edinburgh Labour Councillor, who had been elected under the old system and was re-elected in May 2007 when STV was used for the first time for the elections.

Scottish devolution has always been about much more than simply reforming a nation’s government. From the very earliest days of the modern devolution movement, and particularly since the 1989 establishment of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, it was clear that devolution for Scotland was seen as a wholesale attempt to re-define the British political model.

The proposals from the Constitutional Convention fell into four broad categories: powers and responsibilities; finance; size and electoral system; structure, practices and procedures. This broad-ranging Convention package was a concerted attempt to move on from the then dominant Westminster model of political representation.

The Convention’s final report (Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right, 1995) called for “a parliament of “a new type” to ensure “openness, responsiveness, accessibility and accountability”. It was to be elected by a form of proportional representation – the additional member system (AMS) – and it was widely acknowledged this would mean a near-certain coalition government from day one. It was also obvious to many that Scottish local government –  wholly devolved to the Scottish Parliament – had little or no chance of retaining its first-past-the-post electoral system in the medium-term.

And modernising local government has always been central to the overall modernising project for the governance of Scotland. Immediately after the 1997 general election, the then Scottish Office set up the McIntosh Commission to bring forward proposals for a forthcoming brand-new relationship between the existing unitary tier of Scottish local government and the soon-to-be created Scottish Parliament. McIntosh clearly recognised there was a democratic deficit at the heart of Scotland’s local government and made recommendations to eliminate it.

The Commission set out five criteria that should be used to determine the system of PR to be adopted for Scottish local government. These were proportionality, the councillor-ward link, fair provision for independents, allowance for geographical diversity, and a close fit between council wards and natural communities. McIntosh’s report was handed to the newly formed Scottish Executive in mid-1999.

To take the recommendations forward, the Scottish Executive set up the Renewing Local Democracy Working Group, chaired by Richard Kerley. One of its main tasks was to advise on the most appropriate system of election for local government, taking account of the criteria set out by the McIntosh Commission. The working group took the view that the first two McIntosh criteria –  proportionality and the councillor-ward link – were the most critical. It pointed out that, with any voting system, there has to be a trade-off between these two criteria. The highest degree of proportionality can be achieved only at the expense of the Councillor-ward link. The question was where to strike the balance.

When the group assessed six different voting systems against these two criteria, the choice came down to AMS or STV. Crucially, with STV all the Councillors would be elected on the same basis, but there would be several in each ward. The working group then evaluated these two systems against the remaining three criteria. In its report it concluded that STV would best meet the requirements of the group’s remit.

Immediately after the Scottish elections of May 2003, the Scottish Executive began consulting on the detail (and not the principle!) of a draft ‘Local Governance (Scotland) Bill’ which was finally enacted and in place for the most recent Scottish local government elections on Thursday 3rd May 2007.

STV, in three and four multi-member wards across the whole of Scotland, is thus now 4-months old. And, despite all the predictions of doom and gloom, local government business has continued to function and I would contest that local politics has been hugely strengthened. Indeed, I’ve not seen one, serious press piece about ‘problems on the ground’ with STV in practice since May 3rd –  it has already become an accepted part of the local political landscape.

Some highlights since the introduction of STV are:

  • There is no more single-party dominance in local authorities right across Scotland
  • There is real competition for seats – Councillors are having to work hard to maintain support
  • The member-Ward link has actually thus been strengthened, despite predictions to the absolute opposite
  • And there was real choice for voters. Voters were able to choose from a list of candidates, from all parties, so the voter decided openly who represented them – not small unseen party cliques

I’ve been a long-standing champion of STV and am also pleased (and relieved) that it seemed to be used with such ease by most voters a few months ago. It is a system that puts voters very much in charge, which is why so many politicians and political Parties dislike it!

And voters do seem to have found it easy to understand. The number of spoiled ballot papers for the Local Council elections was exceptionally low – unlike the serious problems with the Scottish Parliament AMS ballot paper – and indeed, all of Scotland had a lower % of spoiled STV ballot papers than Northern Ireland did in their Assembly elections in March 2007 – and they’ve been using STV for decades.

Taking Edinburgh, my own local authority, as an example – the number of Councillors elected for each political Party more fairly represents the percentage of the vote they achieved across the city. And that’s principally why we’ve seen such a significant change in the make up of the Council – we now have 5 main Party Groups, – Liberal-Democrat, Labour, SNP, Conservative and Green. There used to be only three Party Groups on the Council and their numbers of seats didn’t reflect their percentage of the vote.

So since the May 3rd election, no single Party has had an overall majority – far from it, with the largest Party only having 29% of the seats on the Council. Thus, the city has a ‘coalition’ in charge with political Parties having to share power.

So, changed-times indeed. And I believe the change will be to the long-term benefit of politics in Edinburgh, and Scotland – there will simply have to be more co-operation between political Parties. Old style, confrontational politics isn’t going to end overnight, but I do think its days are now numbered.

So, Scotland proves that methodical, careful, coalitions for electoral change can work and reformers everywhere should take heart from that. Now, in the Autumn of 2007, only English local government and Westminster itself remain elected by a majoritarian system. With ongoing effort from electoral reformers that should not last for long.

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