Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Rigging the system

Ynys Môn council has been dysfunctional for many years, and regular attempts from both inside and outside the island to resolve the issues have failed.  The differences are generally not political, but personal; councillors are as prone to falling out with members of their own party as they are to falling out with members of other parties.  And ‘independent’ covers a multitude of sins.
Clearly, something needed to be done, and sending in the commissioners can have come as no surprise to most people.  New elections – and preferable a largely new set of councillors – are an inevitable part of the longer term solution.  I’m concerned, though, about the latest proposals from the boundary commission.  Or, rather, I’m concerned about the direction given to the boundary commission by the minister.
The general guidance used by the boundary commission in relation to all councils in Wales is set out here.  In paragraphs 5.4 onwards, the preference for single-member wards is made clear.  Although the commission can and must consider whether multi-member wards have advantages, in general they are asked to prefer single-member wards.
The minister has the right to over-rule the consideration – paragraph 5.5 of the general guidance specifies that he may do so in specified areas.  In the case of Ynys Môn, he has decided to do so.  As the introduction to the report on the island’s electoral arrangements makes clear, the Minister made a specific direction in relation to Ynys Môn, which “requires that we should, in the first instance, consider the desirability of multi-member electoral divisions throughout the County”.
Personally, like anyone else who advocates STV, I favour multi-member wards; they’re essential if we want to have a more proportional result.  So I have no objection to the introduction of multi-member wards per se (although I’d prefer it to be accompanied by a move to STV).
But is it right to have a different approach in one council area from that being implemented everywhere else, where the main reason for that difference appears to be to facilitate the election of different people?  There is no doubt in my mind that the Minister has acted in accordance with the powers conferred upon him, because those powers don’t seem to require that he provides any reason or argument for adopting a different approach in one area, or place any constraints on what considerations he might apply.
And that’s where my concern lies.  There is a dangerous precedent here, under which the Minister has directly interfered in the work of the boundary commission to instruct them to take a particular approach in Ynys Môn, largely because he doesn’t like the result of the elections there.  I don’t like them either – but I’m simply not convinced that rigging the electoral system is the right way to deal with that problem. 
And Ynys Môn isn’t the only place where I don’t like the results of the elections.  If the Minister also feels that, what is to stop him interfering further in other areas to obtain a result more to his liking?


The Red Flag said...

I lived for a while in a ward multi-member area in England - Oldham to be precise. There they have 20 wards, 60 councillors, 3 councillors in each.

When they have a 'full slate' election everyone gets three votes and each ward returns the top three as councillors.

A year later the councillor who polled lowest of the three has to stand again.

A year after that the middle one.

A year after that the top one.

Then a year off.

Then a 'full slate' election again.

The advantages of this are plain to see - the council is continually evolving as public opinion evolves.

The only disadvantage I ever saw was that there is no limit to the number of candidates a party can put forward so it is not unusual to have all three councillors in a ward from the same party. A disadvantage that is easily rectified by only allowing a party to stand one candidate in each ward and to make doubly sure only allowing Independents to stand as such - no mention of a party name. On the single vote years no candidate from a party that already holds a seat in that ward.

Personally, I'd even go further and make it that the councillor must be primarily resident in the ward they represent.

But whatever, the ordinatry person on Anglesey has had enough of the 'piss-takers' we currently have and want an election that they are not allowed to stand in.

John Dixon said...

Red Flag,

Multi-member wards and election by thirds don't necessarily go together; and indeed, election by thirds tends to rule out STV. Multi-member wards can lead to 'vote-splitting' - and are more likely to do so if elections are not carried out by thirds. (I was a councillor for a four-member ward for 12 years, the first 8 as the sole Plaid member alongside 3 Tories, and the final 4 as one of 3 Plaid members alongside a single Tory) But they don't necessarily do so. There are plenty of multi-member wards in Wales which have all their councillors from the same party (including, by now, my former ward).

I'm not sure that it is realistic to ban parties from putting up a full slate in a multi-member ward, though. Firstly, it would make it almost impossible for any party to ever win more than around a third of the seats, and secondly, it's likely to create the conditions where there are more 'independent' candidates (some might say exactly the problems in forming a coherent administration which have dogged Ynys Môn!).

Election via STV would make it less likely that any party would get its full slate elected in any ward, as well as making the wards more electorally competitive.

I have a lot of sympathy with your comment that "the ordinatry person on Anglesey has had enough..."; I'm just unconvinced that setting up a voting system which is unique to the island is the best way of giving effect to that.

Anonymous said...

As an outsider Ynys Mon does sound as though it has been a mess for many years. The press reports it as such, the minister thinks so, external assessors come to the same conclusion, but the electors still seem happy to send those councillors back. At the end of the day it is their call and they then have to live with the consequences of how they vote.

Anonymous said...

Large mutlimember member wards in a rural area will surely ensure that councillors become more estranged from their electors. The nature of most multimember wards is that one party takes all the seats and the range of views that exist in an area are not reflected in the final result hence the Boundary Commissions statement about single member wards mentioned in your blog. It is possible that a party only contests six of the new wards which they win on relatively low majorities and are then able to form a majority on the council, but have very low overall percentage vote from all the island electors and then we would be repeating some of the results that we get in the south where one political party gets 40% of the vote and 70% of the seats.

Cibwr said...

The rationale is that with multi member wards there is a greater chance of an electoral contest, rather than in single member wards, thus increasing democratic competition. On the whole I think multimember is better than single member for this reason. However like you John I am somewhat suspicious of the use of powers to get a particular result.

Anonymous said...

The original 2009 guidance by Brian Gibbons required the consideration of multi-member wards in ALL local authorities. This is not greatly different. I think you're reading too much into it.

What's the basis for your statement that Carl Sargeant's direction is based on the fact that he doesn't like the results of the elections?

John Dixon said...

Anon 20:32,

I agree that large multi-member wards in rural areas will make it harder for councillors to know all their electors. That is a real problem for those of us who support the proportionality which STV brings. In the end, it's a trade-off, and for me at least, proportionality wins as the more important factor. That's why I agree with Cibwr that multi-member is better than single-member. However, the point of this post was the point reiterated in Cibwr's final sentence - a concern about the use of powers to obtain a particular result.

Anon 07:21,

I agree that the 2009 guidance required multi-member wards to be considered as an option, but the guidance very clearly stated a preference for single-member wards. In the case of Ynys Môn, the boundary commission have been told very explicitly NOT to use the 2009 guidance, but to apply a different approach which gives a preference to multi-member wards. And the result is that Ynys Môn is the only council in Wales where it is proposed that every ward should be multi-member. I think that's very different, and is a case of applying one set of rules in one place, and another set everywhere else.

It's that difference in approach which concerns me. I'd support a move to multi-member wards everywhere in Wales (although I know that there are a lot of people in rural areas who'd disagree), but what worries me is fixing the ward boundaries in one council in a different way from all the other councils - and doing so not on the basis of the expressed will of the people in the area concerned, but at the rather arbitrary behest of the minister.

I don't know whether I'm unfairly impugning Carl Sargeant's motives here, but I don't think so. As reported, the suggestion was that larger wards will make it harder for some of the more troublesome individuals to get re-elected on the basis of small local fiefdoms. I don't think it's unfair to interpret that as setting ward boundaries in order to obtain a particular result - i.e. the departure of some councillors. And let me be clear - I don't disagree with the objective at all. My concern is the precedent set by fixing ward boundaries in order to obtain a particular outcome in one authority. I really do believe that arranging elections so that the 'wrong people' are less likely to win should worry democrats.

Anonymous said...

"the suggestion was that larger wards will make it harder for some of the more troublesome individuals to get re-elected on the basis of small local fiefdoms."

Yes, but whose sugestion is it?

John Dixon said...

The answer to that isn't entirely clear to me. I suspect that it's part of an unattributable 'briefing'. But the drive towards larger wards clearly starts in the Bay.

The Red Flag said...

Bottom line is the Anglesey voter (of which I am one). I vote at every election at every level that I can do and have done since the 1970's. Even when I was a soldier serving overseas I used proxy voting.

At times over the years I have voted for the least objectional as opposed to the one belonging to the politics I believe in purely because I don't believe it is my right to vote - I believe it is my duty.

I would prefer it if local elections on Anglesey did not take place unless everyone currently occupying a council seat is barred from standing. Failing that, I am quite happy to wait until they die.

Most of my friends and work colleagues think the same. That is how bad things are and keeping things as they are is not an acceptable option.