Matthew Mathias, Campaigns and Projects Officer for the Electoral Reform Society Cymru
This month saw the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill passed the final stage at the Senedd. There is a lot to be happy about. We in Wales can be proud that 16 and 17-year-olds can now vote for their local councillors as well as their Senedd Members. If only the ancient Mother of Parliaments over in Westminster could catch up.
There’s more; the bill qualifies foreign citizens who are legally resident here to vote as well as making it easier for people to get themselves on the electoral register. There are also provisions to improve diversity and transparency in local government including job-sharing for Cabinet members and ensuring full council meetings are live-streamed.
But one of the headline provisions, one that really has the potential to transform democracy in Wales, was allowing local authorities to choose how their councillors are elected. They and by them I mean, you, could now have a choice. Our councils can either stick with the broken First Past the Post system that has consistently failed voters or move to the fairer Single Transferable Vote system, where the number of seats is a close match the number of votes cast.
First past the post’s winner takes all system is unfair, outdated and treats democracy like a sport. Politics isn’t a race or a fight. It’s about how our local communities work, how decisions are made and for that you need to hear a greater variety of voices, not fewer.
But to be honest, we were disappointed that the Welsh Government didn’t go further. They stopped short of adopting STV as the preferred electoral system for all local authorities. Because of this, detractors will argue against change because having different systems in neighbouring council areas may be ‘confusing’.
While this postcode lottery will indeed be bad news for people living in areas that stick to the electoral system they have now, why punish voters in a local authority that do want a fairer democracy as a priority?
Local democracy has long been considered the poor relation in politics which is hard to comprehend when you consider the role our councils have. With budgets in their millions and responsibilities for education, housing, social services councils deliver the vital frontline services that so many people rely on in their everyday lives.
Despite these responsibilities, and their importance most, people don’t bother to get out there and vote in the local elections. Just a quarter of eligible voters in the Trowbridge ward in Cardiff voted in the 2017 local elections, Penderry in Swansea had a turnout just shy of 22%. Across the city there were eight wards where turnout failed to reach 30%. Flintshire had five wards and Wrexham had six.
Across Wales, there were 93 wards where people had no election at all, where councillors were elected unopposed. That meant that four thousand people in Neath Port Talbot were disenfranchised; the same was true for over eighteen thousand voters in the thirteen uncontested wards in my home county of Pembrokeshire who were given no say in who represents them.
I could go on.
We should be angry with this. Even the most self-interested members of parties or independents can’t be happy with this inequality either. Under First Past the Post everyone loses out.
In Powys, the Conservatives gained a third of the vote but only a quarter of the seats on the council. In Blaenau Gwent, Ceredigion and Ynys Mon, Labour can feel hard done by as the vote share definitely doesn’t match seats gained and the same can be said of Plaid in the Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff and Swansea, the Lib Dems in Newport and Wrexham and Independents in Neath Port Talbot and Monmouthshire.
But for every area a party loses out, there’s one where they benefit. Will there be any change from parties when they gain so much from the status quo? Plaid in Gwynedd, Labour in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Conservatives in Monmouthshire and Independents in Blaenau Gwent all have a majority of seats in the council chamber without the majority of the vote.
All over Wales, we have superb councillors who are at the heart of their communities, working every hour sent and treating it as a full-time job without the pay. That’s not the full picture though. Council chambers rarely reflect the people they seek to represent. Where is the equality? Where is the diversity?
It’s only recently we finally rid ourselves of the last all-male cabinet in Wales.
The move to the Single Transferable Vote, a fairer way of electing our councillors would be a gamechanger. There would be greater opportunities to provide a diverse slate of candidates, there would be more choice for you, the voter, and fewer safe seats.
Local democracy has been neglected for many years, but now it’s time to show it the love and care it deserves. Unfortunately, power for change now lies with representatives who have been elected by the very system we seek to replace.
Councillors, it’s over to you.