When I was writing about the South Shields by-election the other day, talking about how safe seats marginalise those who live in them, I pointed out the dominance that the Labour Party have on the local council there. In fact Labour on South Tyneside council have 88.89% of the seats. Which according to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) makes South Tyneside a ‘One Party State’.
The ERS have launched a ‘Rotten Boroughs’ campaign to highlight what they see as being wrong with the state of local government in England and Wales. New analysis that they have undertaken shows that 21 million people are living in the local government equivalent of One Party States’, which they define as;
“authorities with a single party holding over 75% of council seats, leaving opposition incapable of providing any checks of council decision making.”
The choice of 75% is because this figure gives the ruling party a two-thirds majority which means that they have the ability to change the rules by which a council is run without needing the support of any other party. A practical example of this is if the majority party don’t like the way the opposition is asking awkward questions in council meetings they can change the “Standing Orders” so that there are fewer opportunities for those questions to be asked.
All of the three major parties have examples of these one party states. The Liberal Democrats run Eastleigh with 86.36% of the councillors. This is not so much a problem of how the system is unfair to certain political parties, but about how our ‘First Past the Post’ voting system can give winning parties a disproportionate majority and in doing so make impossible proper scrutiny. As I have said many times — democracy is not just about voting — it also requires debate and challenge. If one party nearly always ends up running the council and the opposition is nearly always powerless to do anything that debate and challenge doesn’t happen and bad government results.
Luton is not the worst example of a ‘Rotten Borough’ but it does just fit within the ERS’s definition of a ‘One Party State’ given that Labour have exactly 75% of the seats on the Council.
I noted also that next door Central Bedfordshire is also a ‘One Party State’. Here the Conservatives have 83.05% of the seats.
I think this partly explains the polarised nature of politics in southern Bedfordshire. We have two unitary councils — each partly responsible for the welfare of the Luton/Dunstable/Houghton Regis conurbation — but each in turn dominated by a different and opposing political party. Scrutiny of both administrations is difficult and cooperation between the two made impossible because of the lack of a middle ground. For instance, the 36 Luton Labour councillors can’t establish working relationships with Central Bedfordshire Labour councillors because..er…there is only one.
What is the solution? Simply to introduce a fair voting system for local government elections in England and Wales — just like the one introduced into Scotland.
Does any of this strike a cord with you? The ERS are asking people to share their experience of how local democracy has failed them.