Reforming Welsh Democracy: The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill

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.
Click here to read the previous part in the series.

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill (LGE(W)B) is a new piece of legislation currently passing through the Welsh Assembly, introduced on the 18th of November 2019. The Bill will be the “biggest change” in the Welsh electoral system for 50 years” (Eichler, 2019) including reforms surrounding changing the voting system, running electoral pilots and lowering the voting age. The Bill “aims to reinvigorate local democracy in Wales.” (Welsh Government, 2019). So how does the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill seek to achieve this?

Part 1 of the LGE(W)B provides for the introduction of two available voting systems for local councils: FPTP and STV. Put simply this represents a choice between a majoritarian system and a proportional representation system. The mechanics of STV are explained and discussed on the Electoral Reform Society website (2017). Individual councils are given the choice of which electoral system they would most like to use, rather than the National Assembly for Wales imposing a new system on councils. The Bill requires two thirds of councillors to vote in favour of a change and included in the Bill are requirements for public consultation but no requirement or power to call a local referendum on the issue.

brown building with lights turned on during night time

Part of the reason this option has been chosen is because it makes the reform easier to pass. A permissive system where local councils have the power to choose rather than being mandated to switch to STV is more palatable to politicians who aren’t in favour of STV. This means the Bill can be perceived as less controversial, making it more likely to gain cross-party support and pass through the Senedd with ease.

This model for the introduction of STV is not unprecedented. The Local Electoral Act 2001 (New Zealand) introduced a similar model where local councils were given the power to decide between STV and FPTP. However, a two-thirds majority of members was not required to make the change and citizens were able to demand a referendum on the issue by getting 5% of the electorate to sign a petition. Six local elections later and only 16.4% local councils have chosen to use STV (DIA, 2019).

The argument in favour of using this model in New Zealand was that it would “foster local choice giving concrete expression to the notion of local democracy” (Cheyne & Comrie, 2007). Before the first local election in 2004, 18 councils held referendums, with only three being required to switch to STV. Seven local councils decided to change without holding a referendum (Zvulun, 2012). However, some councils failed to consult the public at all, some provided ineffective public information and some offered no way for citizens to meaningfully engage with the process. The result was the low adoption of STV. Cheyne and Comrie (2007) conclude in their study of how councils exercised the option between STV and FPTP, that the Act had two competing goals: local flexibility and fair representation. The bill placed too much emphasis on local flexibility meaning we have failed to obtain fair representation.

In-depth national statistics for local elections in New Zealand are non-existent, likely due to there being significantly less emphasis on party politics for these elections. However, if we take one council as an example we can unpack how this system operates on a local level. Tauranga City Council changed from FPTP to STV in the 2019 election. The reasons they cited for this change are both “STV reduced the number of wasted votes and is more equitable for minority representation” (Tauranga City Council, 2017). The council switched without extensive public consultation or a local referendum with the local mayor arguing that the change came out of nowhere (Cousins, 2017). This means the only way that local people could have prevented the change would have been petitioning for a referendum.

Turnout in 2019 for the council rose from 38.07% to 40.28% showing no significant change
(Tauranga City Council, 2019). We can draw little in the way of meaningful conclusion from this change apart from that voters weren’t deterred by the new system. Next, we shall consider the council’s goal to reduce the number of wasted votes. A wasted vote can be defined as one which simply did not contribute to the result. By this definition, as seen in Figure 1 below, in 2016 under FPTP 50.6% of the votes were wasted whereas in 2019 the figure dramatically dropped to 29.01%. This is due to the redistribution of votes if your vote is not for a winning candidate.


Figure 1 - Votes contributing to the results in the Tauranga City Council election in 2016 and 2019
Note: multi-member wards under FPTP inflate the number of votes, there was not a sudden decrease in turnout under STV

This discussion of New Zealand presents both the advantages and disadvantages of the model currently being proposed by the Welsh Government. The system’s flexibility is a double-edged sword that means the reforms may do nothing to improve turnout, gender diversity or representation because it is possible for not a single council to adopt STV. However, this proposal does have the potential to begin to introduce STV into Welsh local elections whilst still gaining the cross-party support required to pass the legislation in the first place. I fundamentally believe that whilst these proposals have the best of intentions, they will do very little to spread the adoption of Single Transferable Vote. At best we will end up with a strange patchwork of local authorities using different systems resulting in strange results making it harder to understand national local election results across Wales.



Bibliography

Eichler, W., (2019). Welsh teenagers set to get the vote in local government ‘overhaul’ [online]. LocalGov. [Viewed 2nd January 2020]. Available from: https://www.localgov.co.uk/Welsh-teenagers-set-to-get-the-vote-in-local-government-overhaul/48548

Wales. Welsh Government, (2017). Reforming Local Government: Resilient and Renewed White Paper - Summary of Response, July 2017 [online]. Cardiff:Welsh Government. [Viewed 7th January 2020]. Available from:
https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/consultations/2018-02/171122-summary-responses-en.pdf

Wales. Welsh Government, (2018). Electoral Reform in Local Government in Wales: Consultation - Summary of Responses, April 2018 [online]. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Viewed 8th January 2020]. Available from: https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/consultations/2018-04/180526-summary-of-responses.pdf

Wales. Welsh Government, (2019). Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, [online] Cardiff: National Assembly for Wales. [Viewed 29th December 2019] Available from: http://senedd.assembly.wales/mgIssueHistoryHome.aspx?IId=26688&Opt=0

Wales. Welsh Government, (2019). Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill Explanatory Memorandum, 18th November 2019 [online]. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Viewed 10th January 2020]. Available from: https://www.assembly.wales/laid%20documents/pri-ld12877-em/pri-ld12877-em-e.pdf

Wales. Welsh Government, (2019b). Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill: Statement of policy Intent for SUbordinate Legilsation to be made under this Bill, November 2019 [online]. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Viewed 30th December 2019]. Available from: http://senedd.assembly.wales/documents/s96017/Local%20Government%20and%20Elections%20Wales%20Bill%20Statement%20of%20Policy%20Intent.pdf

Electoral Commission., (2017). Results and turnout at the May 2017 Wales local elections [online]. The Electoral Commission. [Viewed 15th January 2020]. Available from: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/who-we-are-and-what-we-do/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/wales-local-council-elections/results-and-turnout-may-2017-wales-local-elections

Elections Centre., (2017). Local Elections Summaries 2017 [online]. The Elections Centre. [Viewed 9th January 2020]. Available from: http://www.electionscentre.co.uk/?page_id=3755
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: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/New-Voices.pdf

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: https://medium.com/athena-talks/pitiful-progress-women-councillors-in-wales-after-the-2017-local-elections-edbf39258c7

DIA, (2019). Resource Material: STV Information [online]. Department of Internal Affairs. [Viewed 7th January 2020]. Available from: https://www.dia.govt.nz/diawebsite.nsf/wpg_URL/Resource-material-STV-Information-Index?OpenDocument#four

Cheyne C & Comrie M, (2007). Empowerment or Encumbrance? Exercising the STV Option for Local Authrotiy Elections in New Zealand. Local Government Studies [online]. Volume in 31(2), 185-204. [Viewed 4th January 2020]. Available from: doi: 10.1080/03003930500023064

Zvulun, J., (2012). The Single Transferable Vote and Voter Turnout in the 2004 Local Elections. Journal of Political Marketing [online]. 11(3), 123-142. [Viewed 7th January 2020]. Available from: doi: 10.1080/15377857.2012.699392

Tauranga City Council., (2017). New voting system for 2019 local elections [online]. Tauranga City Council. [Viewed 3rd January 2020]. Available from: https://www.tauranga.govt.nz/council/council-news-and-updates/latest-news/artmid/456/articleid/1682

Tauranga City Council, (2019). 2019 Triennial Electionst [online]. Tauranga City Council. [Viewed 4th January 2020]. Available from: https://www.tauranga.govt.nz/Portals/0/data/council/elections/files/final_result_report.pdf

Cousins, J., (2017). Tick box voting system dropped for Tauranga council elections [online].Bay of Plenty Times. [Viewed 3rd January 2020]. Available from: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/bay-of-plenty-times/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503343&objectid=11905538

Photo Credit - https://unsplash.com/photos/hb_gXTAYW-g


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