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

On 2nd May, voters across England and Wales voted in this year’s set of local elections, spurring volumes of comment. But beyond the headline stories, from the Conservatives suffering severe losses to the continued rise of the Greens and independents, another one lurked beneath – a voting system that is delivering poor representational outcomes for voters. In certain respects, it’s a tale told many times before; but as with many unending film series, it’s a story getting worse with every telling, with the addition of new characters not helping.

Skewed councils

As we identified in our earlier analysis of last year’s local elections, the First Past the Post voting system used for English local elections has a tendency to create results that massively distort the political views of the communities they are supposed to represent. Using the Gallagher Index of disproportionality, in which 0 means seats perfectly match votes, May 2023’s council races averaged a score of 15.7. But the 107 councils with seats up for election on 2nd May scored 19.2 on average, a 22% increase in disproportionality on last year and a worse score than any general election in modern Britain. 

Similarly, the proportion of councils which returned wrong-winner results, where the party which won the most votes didn’t win the most seats, increased from 10% in 2023 to 17% in 2024. Sometimes pacts between parties were responsible here, but that’s still a 1 in 6 failure rate in terms of getting the winner right. While not quite as stark, half of all contests saw a party win a majority of seats on a minority of votes – Tunbridge Wells, for instance, will now be governed by a Lib Dem majority, a party favoured by just 28% of voters there.

Also getting worse was the share of voters being represented by a councillor they elected, which fell from 55% last year to 52% this year. A central reason for this year’s fall is the number of Conservative voters electing a Conservative councillor declined from 47% to just 37%. Labour might have performed best by this measure – 67% of Labour votes elected Labour councillor – but this is still far short of the proportions seen in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the proportional STV gives 85% of voters a councillor from their first-choice party. 

All round, a very poor report card for First Past the Post.

Fragmenting voters

At the heart of the problem here is that voters are increasingly embracing multi-partyism and the voting system can’t keep up. England’s local election voting system originates from an era when, if actually contested, council elections were typically fought between independents, with at most two parties being players. This year, nearly half of councils saw candidates with at least four different colour rosettes win seats, with 1 in 10 now having at least six groupings in the town hall. And that’s just in terms of who’s getting elected: there are a number of councils where First Past the Post has denied parties representation despite significant shares of the vote, such as the Conservatives in Woking (25%, no seats) or the Greens in Tameside (18%, no seats).

This fragmentation could also be seen in the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and mayoral elections, where, thanks to the shift from the Supplementary Vote to First Past the Post, a number of races were decided on very small shares of the vote. 18 of the 37 PCCs, for instance, were won by candidates with less than 40% of the vote, with four elected by less than 1 in 3 voters, including Philip Wilkinson in Wiltshire managing re-election on just 31% of the vote.

For all the supposed ‘rules’ about First Past the Post ensuring two-party systems, it so obviously isn’t happening in practice – 40% of votes in council elections were cast for parties other the main two. It’s also not a genie going back in the bottle. So why persist with a voting system that isn’t delivering anything but distorted council chambers?

England’s only proportional body

One potential solution can be found in the London Assembly, which held its seventh set of elections last week. It’s the only public body in England elected by a form of Proportional Representation, specifically the Additional Member System (AMS). This sees 14 constituency members elected by First Past the Post and 11 London-wide members elected by corrective List PR, ensuring the Assembly is overall broadly proportional to the views of London’s voters.

Because of the co-existence of voting systems, we can contrast the differences. Had the London Assembly been elected solely by First Past the Post, on average, results would have been three times as disproportional (Gallagher score of 7.2 (AMS) vs 22.0 (FPTP)). The party choices of nearly a third of Londoners (and as many as 42% in 2004) would also have been left without any representation in the capital’s regional politics. It would also have meant continuous false one-party majorities on the Assembly, despite such ‘winning’ parties averaging just 38% of the vote (or as low as 31% in 2004). Luckily, AMS has prevented such stark misrepresentations of London, reflecting the multi-party nature of the city.

Local councils should be about every part of the community coming together to do what’s best for their towns and villages. To do that properly, they need a voting system that is going to enhance representation and give everybody a voice, rather than some arcane one that has failed to keep up with changing political behaviour and is performing worse on pretty much any representation metric every year. It’s time to make local votes matter; it’s time for PR.