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Proportional representation and local government

Executive summary

So far, much of the debate about whether to change the system of local elections in Britain has taken place at a very general level. This research goes deeper into the issue by examining the experience of local electoral systems in Europe. What is revealed is that selecting the right electoral system is no straightforward exercise. A variety of broadly different systems exists from which a choice can be made but the operation of these is in turn affected by the detailed rules and provisions adopted within various countries. Moreover, the number of parties and the state of party competition can have a substantial effect on the outcomes achieved under a particular system, as can the way that voters choose to exercise their vote.

The structure of this report is built around an examination of the four main electoral systems that can be observed in use in local and regional elections in Europe. The ‘first-past-the-post’ system is alone practised in Britain and key features of its operation are reviewed drawing on recent local elections. France provides the main illustration of the ‘party list’ system that also operates in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and several other countries. The ‘additional member’ system is illustrated through its use in 1999 in Scotland’s Parliamentary and the Welsh Assembly elections. However, prime attention is given to the use of the ‘additional member system’ in Germany’s regional level elections. The final system to be reviewed in practice is the ‘single transferable vote’ schema and in this case the experience of the system in the 1998 election of the Northern Ireland Assembly is noted but most attention is devoted to recent local elections in the Republic of Ireland.

The report starts, however, by painting a broad picture of the kinds of choices that are faced in the detailed design of a voting system. Are voters to be given one choice or encouraged to express an order of preference? What size of constituency (the district magnitude) is proposed? What formula is to be used in counting votes and determining results? Is there a need for an electoral threshold, that is, a legally defined minimum level of support that a party or candidate requires before a seat can be allocated to it?

These detailed questions are addressed fairly straightforwardly in the system of ‘first past the post’ with which we are most familiar in Britain. Voters can express only one choice. Constituency size is usually relatively small. There is no legal threshold since the winner in our system is determined by the simple formula whereby the seat is allocated to the candidate who tops the poll (or the first two or three candidates in multi-seat constituencies).

As Chapter 2 goes on to show, our ‘first-past- the-post’ system may have the virtue of having a relatively simple design but it does not always perform effectively against standard criteria used to assess the performance of electoral systems.

Two questions can be asked of any electoral system. The first relates to its effectiveness in achieving a proportional outcome, by which is meant the degree to which a party’s share of votes equates with its share of seats. An index of proportionality can be constructed for any election result. This paper uses the Loosemore- Hanby index in which a score of below 10 is generally considered to be a proportional outcome. The second issue to be addressed in evaluating an election system is: what kind of elected body does it construct? Does it encourage majorities or coalitions? Does it facilitate the representation of many parties or does it aid the amalgamation of interest in ‘catch-all’ parties?

The current first-past-the-post system used in local elections in Britain, as is well known, generally leads to non-proportional outcomes. However, not only does our current system fail the proportionality test, it also does not guarantee the production of majority government, which for many is the great virtue of ‘first-past-the-post’. More than a third of all councils in Britain were in 1999 hung or balanced. What can be said to that is that our current system does encourage single-party majority government at the local level but the rise in the number of ‘hung’ councils where no party has an overall majority provides a significant qualification to this claimed virtue of our current system.
Having considered the strengths and weaknesses in practice of our current system, the remainder of the report turns to examine how the three main types of proportional representation (PR) election system operate in practice.

The first to be examined is the ‘party list system’ which is the most common form of sub- national election used elsewhere in Europe. This system asks voters to choose between parties, each of which presents a list of candidates. The seats available in the local council are allocated to candidates on the lists according to the share of votes achieved by each party list. Looked at through the lens of the 1998 regional elections in France, the system generally but by no means always achieves highly proportional outcomes. Failure to achieve proportionality is particularly likely where a large number of parties are competing for votes and some fail to get above the threshold to be allocated seats.

Thresholds are generally justified as a mechanism for preventing extremist parties of the left or right from getting a foothold in local politics. Not all countries that use party lists have a threshold – in Sweden, Denmark and Belgium, for example, there is no legal threshold – and generally in these countries highly respectable levels of proportionality are achieved in local elections.
It is common, as with other PR systems, for party list systems to leave no one party with a majority of seats. Coalition government is the norm but the coalitions that are formed reflect issues of principle as well as a pragmatic concern to put together a majority. For example, in France, centre right parties have in some cases refused to form coalitions with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party at the regional level.

The ‘additional member’ system is usually one where the voter has two votes. The first is cast for a candidate standing in a single-member constituency. The second is for candidates arranged according to party (or other) lists. The first stage of the election process sees the constituency votes counted and seats allocated on a first-past-the-post basis. The list votes are then counted with seats allocated to achieve a proportional result taking into account the seats that a party had already won in the constituency section.
The 1999 Scottish and Welsh elections achieved outcomes that led to a proportionality index below 10, that is, they were respectably proportional in their votes cast–seats allocated ratio. The system in operation in Germany generally achieves proportional results but, Proportional representation and local government again, this perceived quality can be undermined if a large number of parties compete for votes and several fail to get above the legal threshold. In Hamburg, for example, close to 20 per cent of votes were wasted in the 1997 elections in the sense that nearly a fifth of votes were cast for parties that received no seats.

The German system also relies on coalition government since few local elections leave a single party with a working majority. Coalition partners are not necessarily the same at the local level as they are at the national level of government.

The ‘single transferable vote’ system allows voters to express a preference over competing candidates in multi-member constituencies. It is the system used in Northern Ireland for local elections and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Local elections in the Republic of Ireland also use the system. Recent elections in Ireland show opportunities for a wide range of parties to win seats. Because the system allows voters to express preferences, then parties that have a broad appeal appear to do better. The system in Ireland also allows Independent candidates to perform well.
The results of the 1999 elections in Ireland led to eight out of 34 local authorities where a single party was able to win an overall majority of seats. Again, it is the nature of Ireland’s party system and the state of party competition that explains this outcome. In other authorities, coalitions are formed on a relatively loose basis and mostly concentrated on key votes for the Chair or Lord Mayor of the Council. Otherwise all local politicians tend to concentrate on constituency issues.

The main conclusion from this study is that, if a choice is to be made about moving from the ‘first-past-the-post’ system in local elections to a proportional representation system (PR) a complex range of issues will need to be addressed. Different systems can be seen as more or less complex to understand. Some give more choice to voters than others. There is more scope for a constituency relationship of a sort in some systems.

European experiences of PR elections provide a useful arena in which to see the main options in practice. All PR systems deliver at a minimum an effective opposition to a ruling coalition or, less frequently, single-party majority government. Most of the time, more proportional results in terms of matching share of votes to share of seats are achieved, although the state of party competition can affect that outcome, especially if the PR system has a legal electoral threshold in operation. Because a larger range of parties can usually win seats under PR systems, the norm is for a coalition government to emerge following local elections elsewhere in Europe. The nature of local coalitions that are formed reflect local circumstances and conditions.
These outcomes which are commonly achieved under PR systems elsewhere in Europe stand in contrast to the current system used in British local elections. In many authorities, no effective opposition is provided, results are generally highly disproportionate and, while majority government is the norm, a substantial proportion of authorities rely on coalition government. Where a PR form of election has been tried at the sub-national level in Britain – for example, in elections to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies – a pattern of outcomes comparable to those achieved elsewhere in Europe can be observed.

If a move to a PR system is to be made, what this research suggests is the need to take care over the design of the detailed arrangements for the electoral system. What it also indicates is that the changing nature of party competition and the way voters exercise their choices can have effects on any system that goes beyond the capacity of institutional design to determine.


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