Our votes for the County and European elections have now been cast. The counts are proceeding on Friday for the County elections and on Sunday for the European elections. Two very different voting systems have been used. We have our traditional first-past-the-post for the County Councils and a very pure form of proportional representation for the European Parliament. The system for the European Parliament allows a wide spectrum of political opinion to be represented and recognises that, as currently organised, no single political party can be in overall control. Our current MP expenses scandal should assist the minor parties although who knows how minor they will be after the votes are counted.
With our council elections generally, first-past-the-post can produce some anomalous results. An example of this is a controlling party having its support over-emphasised by the number of seats that it wins. Crawley Council has 37 members. If all were being elected in one year, it is theoretically possible for one party to poll 37 more votes than the second-placed party but win all of the seats. Nothing that extreme or unlikely has happened in Crawley but we have had some strange results.
All 37 Crawley councillors were up for election in 2004 because of ward boundary changes. The voting split was Conservative 24,805, Labour 20,451, Liberal Democrat 5,920 and Others 4,384. This ballot produced a council with 19 Labour, 16 Conservative and two Liberal Democrat members. Labour was returned with a majority based on just 37% of the votes cast.
Although this result in 2004 can be attributed to the vagaries of first-past-the-post, it also exposed the scope that the Conservatives had for improving the targeting of their campaign. Large Conservative majorities east of the London to Brighton railway line were irrelevant and pointless in the bigger scheme of things, namely control of the council. Instead Labour gained a further two years in power without a convincing electoral mandate in support.
There have been similar outcomes at a national level. In 1951, a Conservative majority was returned despite Labour winning more votes. At the February 1974 General Election, Labour returned slightly more MPs despite receiving fewer votes than the Conservatives.
All of this supports a review of our electoral system without making it so complicated as to reduce voter turnout. Proportional representation seems appropriate for the European Parliament otherwise whole swathes of electoral opinion would not be reflected. Nationally and locally there is a strong case for hybrid systems where we have a mix of directly elected representatives alongside those elected by proportional representation. This has the potential to improve the representation of different viewpoints while keeping the relationship between an elected individual and their constituents. Yes, some councils might then be in no overall political control, forcing people to work together but how is that so tragic?
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
3rd May 2009