Local Elections 2021

Cornwall election highlights problems with UK voting system

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On 6 May, the UK had a series of elections dubbed Super Thursday, the most local elections in a single day since 1973, where 48 million people were eligible to vote. One of the councils going to the polls was Cornwall, which saw a landslide Conservative victory for the first time. But all may not be as it seems.

The Liberal Democrats, and previously the Liberal Party, have always played a significant role in Cornish politics. Since the formation of Cornwall Council in 2009, they have been part of a coalition with independent candidates due to no overall control. The 2021 election was won by the Conservatives, who won with an overall majority. For the first time in the history of the unitary authority, Cornwall Council is being controlled by a political majority.

First-past-the-post

As expected in England, the election used the often maligned first-past-the-post system, with the Police and Crimes Commission vote using the supplementary vote system.

First-past-the-post is simple: a region (Cornwall) gets split up into subregions called seats, and whoever receives the most votes in each seat gets to represent that seat in the county council. This may seem fair at first glance but does present many problems.

Firstly, it inevitably leads to a two-party system (Labour vs Conservatives in the UK or Republicans vs Democrats in the USA).

Secondly, you get situations where a party gets less than a third of the votes but ends up winning a disproportionate number of seats. This provides them with a disproportionate amount of political power, which disenfranchises voters and leads to unwarranted ‘landslide victories’. Even worse is when the party that won the most votes loses the election – for example, the UK general election in 1974.

It also means that parties that do relatively well in elections get little or no representation. In the 2017 general election, the Greens had 525,665 votes but only got 1 seat in Parliament, while the SNP received 977,568 votes and won 35 seats.

First-past-the-post also leads in geographical favouritism with regional parties (notably SNP, DUP, Sinn Féin and Plaid Cymru) winning many seats with the support of a small voter base. This is because their votes are concentrated in specific constituencies and are not ‘wasted’ elsewhere. While UK-wide parties like the Lib Dems may receive many more votes, because these votes are spread out over a greater area it reduces their relative percentage in each consistency, so they are unable to gain the highest number of votes.

Voters become frustrated and either vote tactically (choosing the lesser of two evils) or not voting at all because they do not believe that their vote matters.

In Cornwall, the Conservatives’ 37.9% vote share gave them 54% of the seats, with the Lib Dems’ 18.5% being reduced to just 15% of the seats and Labour’s 11.3% only translated to 5.75% of seats. 

This means that the Conservatives won fair-and-square, and neither I nor anyone denies that, but the disproportionate number of seats their victory led to is a problem and it represents a democratic deficit.

Possible gerrymandering?

In the last local elections in 2017, the number of seats in Cornwall up for grabs was 123, but this was reduced to just 87 seats in 2021 after the electoral boundaries were redrawn.

In 2017, the Conservative won 34.4% of the seats but, after the electoral boundaries were changed, this increased to 54% of the seats despite their share of the vote only increasing by 2.7%. This raises the question: was this a simple mistake made by a government that has been in power for the last decade accidentally redrawing the boundaries to favour themselves, or was it done on purpose?

Gerrymandering, if it did incur in Cornwall, is a very serious issue as it is a systematic attempt to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts. This is very common in the United States and can lead to bizarre-looking boundaries that snake their way through communities, but it can also happen in the UK. For example, in the run-up to the 2020 general election, the government redrew the election maps but reduced the number of seats and were accused by Labour of attempted gerrymandering. 

Similar accusations were made in 2020, when the government tried to pass a bill that would prevent Parliament, our elected representatives, from approving changes to UK parliamentary boundaries. Again, the government had planned to reduce the number of seats (from 650 to 600), but this was changed to redrawing boundaries to even up populations in each constituency.

Final thoughts

Despite the issues highlighted above, the UK continues to be one of the most democratic countries in the world. According to the EIU’s Democracy Index, the United Kingdom comes 16 out of 167, making it one of the few full democracies in the world. However, I think that this can be improved.

One way in which our society can become more democratic is by replacing the first-past-the-post system with a more representative voting system – a list of which are provided by the Electoral Reform Society.

Personally, I favour ‘single transferable vote’ as it provides local representation and is more proportional to what the population wants. Such a system would be relatively easy to apply to both local council and general elections.

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