Wednesday, 1 February 2017

How realistic is STV for local government?

The Welsh government’s proposal to allow individual councils to decide for themselves which voting system to use raises a series of interesting questions.  On the one hand, it’s disappointing that the government is unable to come to a clear preference on a method of voting to apply across Wales, although I understand the pressures within the governing party which create that difficulty.  On the other, it’s difficult for those of us who want to devolve more power to local government to argue against giving the choice rather than imposing a single system, even if we might prefer that the power to be devolved was over rather more substantive issues of policy.
In theory, it’s possible that council areas could end up see-sawing between voting systems, depending on whether the ruling group after any given election was for or against STV.  In practice, I suspect that getting a sufficient majority under STV to reverse a decision to adopt it will be a much harder task than getting a majority under FPTP to adopt STV.  In short, any changes are likely to flow in only one direction.
Some commenters seem to assume that where those parties in favour of STV are in power (essentially, Plaid and the Lib Dems), the change will be made, and where they’re not, the councils will remain under the FPTP system.  I suspect that’s rather an oversimplification, because of the way that STV plays out in different types of area.  As far as the Lib Dems are concerned, their influence in Welsh local government at the moment is so limited that consideration of their position is largely irrelevant, although that may change in the future, of course.  The position of Plaid is rather more complicated.
It’s true, of course, that Plaid uses STV for its internal elections, and that the use of STV for all elections is formal policy.  But support for that position is not universal, and there are good reasons for that.  STV requires large multi-member wards, and it’s easy to see how STV will work well in urban areas such as the valleys of the south and the cities of Wales.  Rural Wales, though, is a rather different matter. 
The councils where Plaid is either in control or the leading party (Gwynedd, Carmarthen, Ceredigion) are all essentially rural counties, and there is a feeling in many areas that existing single member wards are already geographically large.  Combining three or four existing wards into single much larger new wards is unlikely to be popular, even assuming that the seemingly relentless pressure to reduce the total numbers of councillors ceases.  It is likely to make councillors appear even more remote from the people they represent.
It’s not an argument which sways me against STV; even recognising the difficulties, I still favour STV because I believe that it produces a fairer and more democratic result.  But it would be naïve to think that individual councillors who have been elected on the basis of their support and activity in one area are suddenly going to enthuse over the possibility that they will have to fight elections in a much bigger area where they are considerably less well-known.  And council groups are composed of dozens of such individual members – persuading those groups to adopt the change may not be entirely straightforward.
So, whilst in principle I welcome the way in which the Labour government in Cardiff has opened the door to a more democratic system of voting, I’m not going to hold my breath in expectation that it will be adopted anywhere.  And for Plaid, for whom this probably looks like something of a concession, it may turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing, if they can’t actually get their groups in the relevant areas to implement it.

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