We need a dose of PR to improve our municipal one-party states

by Kevin Meagher

One of the unremarked parts of Alexis Jay’s shocking report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham was her finding that the council’s scrutiny function had completely failed to do its job.

As in so many areas where a single party dominates the electoral landscape (Labour has 49 out of 63 seats on Rotherham council), responsibility for keeping tabs on the decisions of the council falls to councillors of the same party. The problem with this arrangement should be obvious enough.

Labour has controlled the town for 80 years. Even a bruising by-election campaign back in 2012, when it’s MP, Denis MacShane, was sent to jail for fiddling his expenses, did little to stop the Labour juggernaut, with current Labour MP, Sarah Champion, slotting in as his replacement.

It’s worth considering, however, that the Conservatives received 9.5 per cent of the votes back in June’s local elections, but won nothing for their trouble. ‘That’s how it works’ comes the unsympathetic reply, but the uncomfortable fact remains that big majorities in politics seldom create better administrations.

Rather than producing strong, outward-looking leaders who need to compete to succeed, stacking-up large majorities can result in fiefs run by complacent, inward-looking political hacks instead.

The effort needed to manage a large group absorbs political energy. Stymieing internal dissent becomes a preoccupation. There are only so many top jobs to gift to people, so cliques form. Back-biting begins. Fixing becomes a necessity.

In the interests of administrative efficiency, electoral fairness and voter engagement, a bit of competition can mix things up.

This is where the impulse of any political party to hoover-up seats and dominate all it surveys intersects messily with the need for good government and political plurality.

However, rather than try to remedy the situation with a move to full-blown proportional representation, which would shatter the valuable link between politician and local community, there is a simple hybrid reform to level the playing field a bit that could be applied to larger, three-member ward unitary councils.

Two seats in each ward should be contested on the usual first-past-the-post system with the remaining third of council seats allotted on the basis of parties’ share of the vote across the borough. (In Rotherham, this would leave the Tories with six seats out of sixty-three).

This would be fairer, energise the local political culture, create some useful political competition and lead to better scrutiny of council decisions. At the very least, it would force governing parties to up their game.

After all, Rotherham shows us what happens when that doesn’t happen.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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13 Responses to “We need a dose of PR to improve our municipal one-party states”

  1. james says:

    Surely what needs to happen first is an independent inquiry into the culture of Rotherham council during that time and how it failed the people there so spectacularly. I can understand why Labour doesn’t want this but quite frankly I tell people where i live (a lib dem led council) that they don’t want a labour one party state citing Rotherham as an example. Rotherham will be Labour’s `tuition fees` if it doesn’t watch out.

    I think Labour should tell its councils what it considers the healthiest council model for transparency and effectiveness and whether they match up to it.

    I would suggest that the ability for the public to ask questions at full council, the scrutiny system opened up to being chaired by other parties (even if you have all the council seats) and an open door system for the leader to see the leaders of other parties would be a good rule of thumb.

  2. swatantra says:

    Its a point I’ve been making for a number of years now. Some of the majorities in these rotten boroughs are obscene and unhealthy, the sooner we get PR the better.

  3. Adam Gray says:

    Except that:

    1) UKIP won almost half the seats in Rotherham under FPTP in May – and will probably win a heck of a lot more than half next May following this scandal – so Rotherham is not a one party state when the voters choose for it not to be one. In fact it’s heading for no overall control: exactly the outcome Mr Meagher seems to want.

    2) The reality of Rotherham’s electoral history is that Labour would have had a comfortable majority under any PR system you can contrive to rig-up – the reason being that Labour usually wins more than 50% of the vote in this district (and over 80%+ in years like 1995)

    3) It is simply daft to claim that the electoral system is somehow culpable for the problems Rotherham is now in: they did not come about because Labour had a huge majority – they came about because Labour councillors (among many, many others) here were evidently not good enough and failed the district woefully.

    Rochdale had a similar scandal despite being a battleground council during the time that scandal happened. Bradford has a marginal council when Ann Cryer was raising similar concerns in Keighley; as was Oxford; as was Luton and as was Haringey. Birmingham has just endured a Tory Lib Dem coalition that did nothing about the developing trojan horse scandal. There is no link whatsoever between who voters put into power locally and whether a scandal occurs.

    The worst way to run a local authority is to subject it to the shifting sands of permanent coalitions, especially ones that will almost always include the last people who should be allowed anywhere near child abuse scandals: weak, luvvie, permissive, pander-to-everyone PC Liberal Democrats (be they in their in own party or the ones that have so infested Labour recently).

    Want more sickening local government scandals? Introduce PR.

  4. davud walsh says:

    Alas, running a “party list” for a third of seats would just allow the leaders of the groups to slot in their cronies, and reduce the number of “local” ward based councillors

  5. Robin says:

    PR in local elections would be incredibly beneficial to Labour. In vast swathes of the country they poll lots of votes but no seats- a rural district council near me had a 20% Labour vote at the last council election, but not a single Labour seat. There is almost nothing which would be better for allowing Labour to expand outside its heartlands and be ambitious about winning traditionally Tory constituencies.

  6. 07052015 says:

    With turnouts so low and with results so underrepresentative,local government in england and wales would defo benefit from PR and voting on a sunday.

    I would then abolish the one third elected rule.

    Bargaining point for discussions with libdems should it be needed ? particularly as westminster PR is a dead duck for some time to come.

  7. Robert says:

    A sensible suggestion to add some democracy to one-party states.

  8. Dereck Roberts says:

    The answer ?
    Multi Member Wards and annual elections of one third of the Councils

  9. bob says:

    Better option slash number of councillors to two per parliamentary ward and then pay them but make them accountable by recall, and elections every two years not three as now. Make parties responsible for their conduct and also have a scrutinising committee, made up of candidates from all parties and outsiders who are not affiliated in any way to a political party, who have the power to in a public forum question councillors on their conduct and if necessary be able to invoke recall. We now need something in councils on the lines of the HoC select committees, where conduct can be publically scrutinised of both councillors and local government officers. make it on the same rules as the HoC, with the power to compel attendance. If they do not attend the ability to refer the situation to the appropriate HoC select committee.

  10. Madasafish says:

    The answer : or rather the cause: is obvious.

    Local councillors don’t affrct revenues. Most are from Central Government. They only pend money.

    So taht is all they think of.

    Take some taxation powers and give them back eg business rates – and let councils be really responsible for what goes on.

    Mrs Thatcher bailed out Liverpool in the Miliitant crisis..the Militant who set out taxis with P45s..

    If she had let them go bust then perhaps the voters would be more interested. After all, their services would have collapsed.

    As it is, there is nothing to vote for.. life goes on. A council can screw things up and voters feel nothing.

    Being forced to vote because it affects your life concentrates minds wonderfully.

  11. Tafia says:

    Bob, an even better option – ban party politics at council level. Only allow council candidates to stand provided they are not party members and live full time in the ward they are standing for.

    Councils should represent people at grass roots level – not represent political machines, and should run councils according to the will of the residents not the will of party dogma.

  12. La Fontaine says:

    Has Adam Gray read the Rotherham Report? It does give some support to the view that being a one-party state contributed to the council’s failings.

  13. Dave Roberts. says:

    In Tower Hamlets some of the ruling Islamist councillors don’t even live in the constituency as don’t thousands of the voters.

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