The nations of Britain and the regions of England are becoming more and more electorally polarised.
Chris Terry is a research officer at the Electoral Reform Society
That Labour should be a party which appeals across the length and breadth of Britain is a relatively uncontroversial view that chimes with the ‘One Nation’ agenda pursued by the party’s current leadership.
Yet the nations of Britain and the regions of England are becoming more and more electorally polarised, with areas such as the South East becoming more Conservative, and the North East becoming more Labour. In the East of England at the 2010 election Labour won more than half a million votes but saw only two MPs returned.
Millions of Labour voters cast their votes for the party and are denied representation due to an unrepresentative electoral system. Labour activists want to reach southern voters as much as those in the urban heartlands of the North, but the current system penalises them for time spent in ‘electoral deserts’.
Councillors can often give a party much-needed lifeblood, providing local campaigning and improved infrastructure, and drawing others into local activism and support. Yet there are 69 councils in the UK where Labour does not have a single seat.
In some of these, Labour support is very low, but in others – such as Castle Point, Essex (26.9 per cent of the vote in 2012), and East Hertfordshire (20.2 per cent in 2011) and North Norfolk (17.7 per cent in 2011) – the party has significant support which is not rewarded with any representation.
A fairer system would allow the party to gain a toehold, perhaps a lone councillor to start off with, followed by a small Labour group.
According to a new report by the Electoral Reform Society, 27 of the 69 district and unitary councils which are currently Labour-free zones would return councillors under a proportional electoral system.
The introduction of such a system in Scottish local government in 2007 shows what is possible. In such a strong Labour heartland there were understandable concerns for the party, but today the party controls 16 council leaderships in Scotland and serves in a further three administrations as a junior coalition partner – four more than under FPTP in 1999.
On Aberdeenshire council, where Labour had never won a seat before, the party is now part of the ruling executive.
The party has also managed to win majorities in five Labour council areas, but the introduction of a fairer voting system has allowed the formation of true oppositions which have been able to hold party administrations to account. The serious risk, in 2012, that Glasgow could be lost, forced the local party to clean up its act, running a rejuvenated slate of candidates who proved to be more dynamic and better servants to the public.
Proportional representation in local government would be good for voters whose chances of casting a ballot which elects their chosen representative would raise dramatically.
It would also help the Labour party achieve its One Nation ambitions. Allowing the party to reach out beyond its heartlands into new areas and to rebuild its bases, it would end ‘no-go’ areas and reward dynamic local parties who give Labour voters a voice all over Britain.
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