Towards the end of 2020, Worthing MVM analysed the outcome of local district council elections for Worthing.  Informally, we had a sense that the results were probably not fair, but we were surprised to find how unfair things actually are in reality.  Worthing Borough Council has 37 seats and is made up of 13 wards.  The Conservatives have a whopping 62% of the seats despite receiving far less than the majority of the votes, just 42%. Their unfair share of councillors is at the expense of the smaller parties, LibDems, Greens and UKIP, who should have won 10 seats between them but only got four on the council.  (For details, see our previous blog on the matter.)

Worthing results.png

Naturally, we then wondered whether the councillors were happy with this inequitable state of affairs.  So, we produced a survey, that included groups of questions about: 

  1. councillors’ representation of their constituents’ views, 

  2. how well councillors understand PR, 

  3. councillors’ views about the fairness of the results of voting, 

  4. councillor’s thoughts about different voting systems, 

  5. for background, what values they consider are British. 

We sent the survey to all 37 councillors using an internet survey tool.  In the end, despite being told the questionnaire takes less than 10 minutes, and following up with them, only six councillors completed the questionnaire and three others gave some relevant comments in emails.

Five of the six respondents largely agreed that voters should know the opinions of their councillors, voters should have a councillor in their ward who shares similar views and willingly represents them, councillors should know the opinions of the constituents and should represent those opinions.  Only Mark Withers (UKIP) did not in general agree.  Overall, the councillors claimed they were knowledgeable about the merits and disadvantages of different voting systems, but most would also like to learn more about voting systems, particularly the impact that a change to PR would have on seats in Worthing. 

One of the most interesting findings concerned the minimum percentage of votes that a party should receive before it wins a majority of council seats. Most respondents thought 50%, but the values ranged between 45% and 60%.  This is noteworthy as the current 62% seat majority comes from a mere 42% of the vote, which is less than what all the respondents considered fair. 

Also, all respondents, bar one, could not even guess what the smallest percentage of votes should be, across the whole electorate, for a party to fairly win a seat.  The one answer was 6%.  As there are 37 seats, proportionally the figure is just 2.7% (i.e., 1/37).  In other words, it is not well understood that PR could increase democracy by giving small parties a voice on the council.  Under PR, citizens with a shared concern about a specific issue could club together to gain representation. 

None of the councillors from the party (Con.) with the unfair majority of seats completed the questionnaire.  The Leader of the Council, Cllr Daniel Humphreys wrote cursorily, “I am not in favour of changing the current voting system”.  Their lack of engagement is disappointing and anyone concerned with improving our voting system might take this as a sign of the complacency that FPTP breeds.  However, we thank one of these councillors, Roy Barraclough, for at least writing more than a sentence.  We suspect that he sums up well the views of those benefiting from FPTP: 

“I am democratically elected by a tried and tested system the envy of many countries around the world. … I am very well-travelled and we have one of the finest and most democratic systems in the World. I do not wish to change this. PR in my opinion is on face value a good idea as the system does have some benefits but on educated investigation and balance it also has too many flaws.”

 We are a little bemused by his comments.  Perhaps he has not travelled widely in Europe, seeing as 43 of its countries have chosen to use proportional representation, with just France and the authoritarian Belarus using FPTP.  We guess he has not been to far flung nations like New Zealand, Scotland and Wales, who given the recent opportunity to choose did not pick “one of the finest and most democratic systems” but instead chose, perhaps without “educated investigation” the system used by nearly all modern advanced countries.  We ask these politicians: “When will you have the courage to suspend your self-interest for the greater good of our country?” 

We thank Councillors Sally Smith, Mark Withers, Henna Chowdhury, Rebecca Cooper, Martin McCabe, Bob Smytherman, Roy Barraclough and Mike Barrett for their considered responses.  Councillor Heather Mercer wrote: “I note that if I do not fill in the questionnaire residents in my ward may be demanding why! …. This appears to be a purely political exercise …. I would request that in publishing that I asked for no further contact you have the transparency to add I was concerned about the methodology being used! (sic)”  It seems odd that an elected politician is objecting to engaging in a political survey, one of whose explicit purposes was to inform constituents about their councillors views about voting systems.  We hope we have provided voters of Worthing who support electoral reform some useful information for the future.

If you would like to ask questions about our survey please send an email to makevotesmatterworthing@gmail.com.

 Peter Cheng and Debbie Woudman, co-organisers of MVM Worthing.