By Dylan Difford. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems.

This year’s set of local elections are just around the corner, with 2,600 seats up for grabs on a range of councils across England. Alongside mayoral and police and crime commissioner races, elections to the London Assembly – which is the only proportionally elected body in England – and a by-election in Blackpool South, 2nd May is poised to be the final electoral test for the government ahead of the general election. As such, the results will provoke lots of reaction about the states of the parties. All too often missing from the discussion, however, will be the severe representational deficits in our local elections system, as well as the disparities in how England elects its councillors.

How do local elections work?

Local elections in England take place using mixed-magnitude plurality voting, often labelled First Past the Post. Each council is divided into multiple wards, or divisions on county councils, which typically elect between one and three councillors each – sometimes all in one go, sometimes one at a time. In a single-member election, the candidate with the most votes wins; in a two-member election, the two candidates with the most votes are elected; and so on.

The problems

As a modified version of the First Past the Post system used to elect MPs, the English local voting system carries over many of the same problems, sometimes to an even greater extent.

Take the Christleton and Huntington ward on the Cheshire West and Chester council. Last year, it elected two councillors, both Conservatives. The electoral basis for this: 24% of the party vote. You’re reading that right – from a quarter of the vote, one party received 100% of the representation. And this is far from an isolated incident. Of the 1,839 multi-member wards that held council elections in 2023 that, if seats matched votes, would proportionally have had multi-party representation, only 547 (30%) did. For the rest, one party snatched a monopoly of representation on a fraction of the vote.

Of course, these distortions at the ward level stack up at the council level, regularly leading to town halls that bear little resemblance to the way its electorate voted. Looking at the 230 councils elected last year, they had an average disproportionality score of 15.7 on the Gallagher Index (where scores closer to 0 indicate more proportional results). For reference, the infamous 2015 general election – one of the most disproportional on record – had a Gallagher score of 15.0. More shockingly still, nine councils returned results nearly twice as disproportional as that.

At the level of individual councils, the horror stories can get even worse. From gross distortions, like in Nottingham, where Labour won 93% of the seats on just half the votes. To the six councils where a party won more than 20% of the vote and won no seats, such as the Vale of the White Horse, where the Conservatives were denied any representation despite obtaining 29% of the vote.

22 councils (10%) saw ‘wrong winner’ results, where one party won the most votes, but another the most seats. This included Wealden, where three groups won more seats than the ballot-topping Conservatives. 76 (92%) of the 83 majorities won on councils with all seats up for election were won on less than half the vote, with Wyre Forest arguably the most egregious example, the Tories winning 61% of seats on just under 30% of the vote. There were even four councils that combined both of these democratic deficits, notably Bracknell Forest, where Labour’s 30% of the vote gained them a small majority, while the Conservative’s 42% netted them less than a quarter of seats.

These kinds of hugely distorted results are happening in their droves up and down England, to the detriment of every party – and, crucially, most voters – in council elections every year. But things just don’t have to be this way…

Proportional councils

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, local councils are elected by the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV). Certain aspects of the elections would be quite familiar to English voters: councillors are elected in multi-member wards representing small communities. But there are key differences too. Voters are able to fully show their preferences towards the different candidates, with seats split proportionally within each ward – so, instead of one party taking all the representation on 30% of the vote, the pluralism of each area is roughly reflected on the council.

This has clear representational benefits: the average Gallagher disproportionality score in the last set of Northern Irish local elections was 5.4, a third of that seen on English councils, and far more people have a councillor that speaks for them – 85% of Scottish and Northern Irish voters have a councillor from their first-preference party, compared to just 55% in England. In all, councils that are far more representative of their citizens’ views.

The same can be seen in a more like-for-like analysis of the 2022 London local elections, which found that using STV would have decreased disproportionality by three-quarters and increased the proportion of voters with a voice of their choice on their council by 61%.

While Wales will not be holding local elections this May, it also uses the same local voting system as England, with similarly distorted results. However, Welsh councils have recently gained the power to switch to STV, with several already beginning public consultations.

England shouldn’t be left behind. Our local election results are a mess, and they just don’t need to be. Switching to a proportional voting system, such as STV, as Scotland successfully did in the 2000s, or another form of PR, as is the overwhelming norm on European councils, would bring clear representational improvements to England’s town halls – benefitting voters and being fairer to all parties. It’s time to make local votes matter.

Photo credit: Elliott Stallion