Reforming Welsh Democracy: The Current Failures of Welsh Local Democracy

Daniel Priestley - Writer & Editor

In this three part series I will explore the current proposals to reforming Welsh local democracy and consider how they could be changed to effectively reinvigorate local democracy in Wales.

Turnout in Welsh Local elections has historically been low, with the 42.4% voter turnout in the 2017 Welsh Local Elections being representative of the norm (Electoral Commission, 2017). Results are also incredibly disproportionate; in the 2017 Welsh Local Elections Labour received 30% of votes yet won 37% of the seats (The Elections Centre, 2017) showing a disconnect between the electorate and the results. Finally, gender and ethnic diversity is lacking; 28% of councillors are women (BBC, 2017) and ERS research shows that as many as 90.6 % of councillors are from a White British background (Blair & Mathias, 2018). Progress on this has been incredibly slow with the proportion of female councillors only increasing by 6% in the 13 years preceding 2017 (Stirbu, Arner & McAllister, 2017). Effective voting reform needs to encourage engagement with local democracy and ensure fair local representation in terms of demographics and the views of the electorate.

FPTP has been used widely in the UK for several different elections, most significantly for general elections in its current form since the 1950s (Cowan, 2019). Since the late 1990’s we have seen the introduction of many new elected positions, none of which have used the FPTP voting system. Today, FPTP is only used in the UK for local elections in England and Wales and General Elections nationwide.
close up photography of sheep in grass field

General discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of FPTP can be found in a previous article I have written. The advantages of this system primarily rest within its “familiarity and simplicity” (Kelly, 2011). It’s incredibly easy to explain to first-time voters and the electorate is familiar with how it operates. This keeps the number of spoiled ballot papers low and prevents voters from being disenfranchised by complicated systems resulting in lower turnouts.

FPTP ensures localised representation; the most popular candidate within a given local area is the winner ensuring a direct link between candidate and voters. This provides “accountability and balance” (Norton, 1997) allowing a community to remove their current Councillor from power if they don’t provide adequate representation. This is very important for local elections as a Councillor is often seen as a leader of the community, and if they are failing on that front, it is important that the community can remove them.

The majoritarian nature of FPTP also ensures that councils tend to have a party in control of them. This allows the council to carry out effective decision making rather than all the parties having to negotiate different policy commitments to form a coalition (Norton, 1997). The ability for effective decision making is incredibly important to allow local governance to provide an effective service in the community. For example, councils need to be able to quickly respond to issues such as the recent issues of flooding throughout Wales.

However, whilst there are advantages to the system, it’s flaws have been stifling local democracy in Wales. Arguably, the biggest flaw is that it can easily create disproportionate and sometimes bizarre results. In the local elections in May 2019, there were 17 councils across England and Wales in which the party which had the most votes did not have the most councillors (Cowburn, 2019). Vote share and seats can in the 2017 election can be seen compared in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - A comparison of the percentage of seats and vote share in the 2017 Welsh local election.

Voter expression lacks flexibility; a voter may only express approval for one candidate and if their candidate does not succeed their voice is discounted resulting in large numbers of votes which do not contribute to the result. In so-called ‘safe seats’, voters who do not support the candidate that wins every election lack any form of representation on their council. The lack of voter expression and the disproportionate results can be considered a clear contributor to the incredibly low turnout and disengagement with local elections in Wales.

FPTP also does nothing to further gender or minority representation. There is limited scope to integrate quotas into the system without affecting voter choice as each party only has one candidate.

Pulling this all together, it is clear that Welsh local democracy has suffered under the rule of the First Past the Post system and it is time for change. The Welsh Government has come to the same conclusion and has therefore released a Bill which is currently passing through the Senedd which is set to reform Local Elections. This will be discussed in the next article in the series.


Elections Centre., (2017). Local Elections Summaries 2017 [online]. The Elections Centre. [Viewed 9th January 2020]. Available from:

Blair J. & Mathias M., (2018). New Voices: How Welsh politics can begin to reflect Wales [online]. Electoral Reform Society Cymru. [Viewed 4th January 2020]. Available from:

BBC, (2017). Election ‘diversity crisis’ warning over women standing [online]. BBC News, [Viewed 8th January 2020]. Available from:

Stirbu D. Larner, J & McAllister L., Pitiful progress: women councillors in Wales after the 2017 local elections [online]. Athena Talks [Viewed 14th January 2020]. Available from:

Cowan, D., (2019). How long have we used first past the post? [online]. Electoral Reform Society. [Viewed 3rd January 2020]. Available from:

Kelly, R., (2011). Nowhere to Run, Nowehere to Hide? The 2010 General Election and the Defence of First-past-the-post. The Political Quarterly [online]. 82(1), 42-49. [Viewed 4th January 2020]. Available from: doi: 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2011.02165.x.

Norton, P., (1997). The case for First-Past-The-Post. Representation [online]. 34(2), 84-88. [Viewed 5th January 2020]. Available from: doi: 10.1080/0034489970852299

Cowburn, A., (2019). Uk’s ‘warped’ first-past-the-post system gave’wrong winners’ in 17 local authorirty elections, study finds [online]. Independent. [Viewed 5th January 2020]. Available from:

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