Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 5 February 2015

First Past the Post prevented Rotherham Council being challenged sooner

The horrendous child abuse scandal in Rotherham and the consequent political fallout has led me to ruminate on what is doubtless one of the contributing factors.

Rotherham Council was effectively a one party state under Labour. This has been commented on in some of the coverage. Indeed Evan Davis on Newsnight last night put this question of lack of opposition on the council to the Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz and she did concur that it was one of the problems.

I have had a look at the numbers from the Rotherham Council elections from 2012 which are the latest I could find. Not all seats were up for election but 21 of them were. The results were:

Labour: 19 seats
Conservatives: 1 seat
Independent: 1 seat

But the percentages were:

Labour: 55%
Conservative: 17%
UKIP: 14%
Independent: 7%
BNP: 5%

Had there been a purely proportional system* then the seat distribution would have been roughly thus:

Labour: 12 seats
Conservatives: 4 seats
UKIP: 3 seats
Independent: 1 seat
BNP: 1 seat**

So Labour would have had just over half the seats (in proportion to their vote) rather than more than 90% of the seats as happened in reality under First Past the Post.

I have been banging on about changing our electoral system ever since I started blogging. Indeed I have even reached the point where I sometimes bore myself on this topic having written and spoken about it so many times.

But the Rotherham case highlights one of the key reasons why so many of us campaigners want to see change. Because having one party taking all or almost all the seats on a council on say 55% or 60% of the vote (as too often happens across the country) isn't just irritating for reform activists like me, it can actually be dangerous.

In an area where the vast majority of councillors are of one party there by definition is bound to not be much opposition and therefore less scrutiny of decisions taken by councils. In some cases this might lead to things like the bin collection service being a bit slapdash or pot holes not being repaired quickly enough. Unfortunately as we have seen in Rotherham the consequences can be and were much, much more serious.

Had there been more councillors from opposition parties there is every chance that the bizarre and harmful decisions that were being taken by Rotherham Council (over 15+ years let's not forget here) would have been flagged up much more quickly.

This is not just a Labour Party problem. There are fiefdoms all over the country not just for Labour but for the Conservatives and Lib Dems too. It doesn't matter what party is in control, if they have massively disproportionate power unchecked and unopposed locally due to a distorting electoral system then there is an increased risk of situations such as those we have seen in Rotherham happening and being allowed to continue to happen.

There has never been a more important time for those of us who want to see change to push our case. The lives and well-being of youngsters in some of the most deprived areas of the country are relying on us.

Rotherham proves this.

*Most campaigners like myself would not advocate a pure PR system but something like STV which would give a much more proportional result although perhaps not exactly as per the proportions listed above.

**Yes, yes the BNP would have got a seat under pure PR. In reality under a preferential system this would be very unlikely to happen actually but in a democracy if a party gets enough votes/preferences they win seats. We should not contrive a system based on its ability to prevent people's views being represented, we should instead strive to persuade them and have nothing to fear from any electoral system. For too long the "boogeyman" of the BNP (or the NF before it) has been used to stymie electoral reform. No more.


Paul Robson said...

Absolutely. You'd get the impression that nobody votes Tory in Scotland for example, but actually they get quite a lot of votes, just no seats. PR doesn't work either because of the disproportionate power it gives to small parties, and the party lists.

I liked the STV. I would modify it slightly. The problem I had with it is that if I (say) voted Tory 1st, LD 2nd, Lab 3rd then then my Labour 'vote' would have the same value. I would like to see alternative votes be rated lower, so in the above example my LD vote would be worth 0.5 vote, and my Lab vote 0.25 of a vote.

Paul Robson said...

I would add in this particular instance that whilst I think politics is relevant, I'm not sure the result would have been any better under any other council, LD or Tory or anything really. (Possibly UKIP or the BNP !)

The reason is that this 'non racist understanding' thing is embedded in the culture that would investigate it, pretty much irrespective of who the politicians in charge are. The permanent staff on councils often just carry on without taking a great deal of notice of their supposed masters.