Keith Best is the Chairman of Conservative Action for Electoral Reform and a former Conservative MP.
The 2022 local elections were tougher than expected. While recent political events certainly shoulder some of the blame, the ineffective electoral system further dented Conservative representation across the country. Since 2019, 29 councils outside of London have failed to correctly represent the Conservative vote. In these boroughs, Conservative councillors who had popular support have been denied seats. London is even worse.
Some of the worst offenders are quite shocking. In 2019, in the small borough of Oadby and Wigston in Leicestershire, the Lib Dems took 92 per cent of the seats with 60 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives came second with just under half of the votes the LibDems polled, but won only two seats out of 28. The Conservatives gained seven per cent of the seats despite polling 25 per cent of the overall vote.
Manchester is a more recent example. Manchester is often perceived as a deep red Labour heartland. While there is no doubt that Labour is dominant in the city, it is not actually Labour only. In the 2022 elections, Labour won 94 per cent of the seats with only 66 per cent of the vote.
Cheltenham tells a similar story, the Lib-Dems secured 18 seats while the Conservatives only managed to secure one, despite gaining over 9,000 votes to the Liberal Democrats 19,000. The Conservatives should have secured between six and nine seats if the electoral process had been fair.
A sense of fair play is missing in local elections. Bright upcoming councillors are missing out on opportunities to support their local communities because of a failing local electoral system. Engaging in fair play is critical to the success of democracy and one of Britain’s great values.
Single party councils also shame the British sense of democracy. The London borough elections produced two all Labour councils, Lewisham – and Barking and Dagenham. 11 per cent of Lewisham’s residents voted Conservative; at least five Conservative councillors should sit in Lewisham making a stand against Labour’s mismanagement. In 2018 over 40 per cent of Lewisham secondary school pupils did not go to a good or outstanding school and Lewisham had the slowest broadband speed in South East London. A 2016 report showed Lewisham is in the bottom three local authorities nationally for its recycling rate with only 17.1 per cent of household waste being recycled. In Lewisham in 2022, Labour gained 100 per cent of the seats with only 55 per cent of the vote.
Barking and Dagenham produced an even less representative result. The Conservatives almost secured 20 per cent of the vote but were denied even a single seat. In 2018 the Conservatives had 23 per cent and still no councillor to represent the thousands of Conservative voters in the borough.
While the debate rages on as to whether Labour councils are less tax-efficient than Conservative councils, one party councils are, as a matter of fact, less tax-efficient. These London Labour one party councils would seriously benefit from opposition voices.
The biggest risk is that as more councils become unfairly dominated by a single party, engagement on the whole decreases. People are less likely to bother turning up to vote for the Conservatives in an election if they perceive their vote as a waste of time. Whereas if the electoral system was adjusted allowing for more proportional representation, Labour-dominated areas would be broken up and more people would feel included in the electoral process. More people would get out and vote Conservative. A greater freedom of choice could help drive up the Conservative vote in local elections.
Freedom of choice and competition bring out the best in humans. Safe Labour councils are much less likely to listen and respond to the needs of local residents in turn producing lower quality elections. More competition is needed to drive up England’s democratic standards.
Every newly created elected body in the UK has avoided using the First Past the Post system; this is true for both local and national parliaments. English local elections and Westminster are becoming increasingly anomalous. It is time to embrace the Conservative values of fair play and freedom of choice, and agree that local elections in England should be placed under review. The Conservatives owe it to the many unrepresented and left behind Conservative voters.
Please find below the 29 most rotten elections where the Conservatives lost seats unfairly to Labour and the Lib Dems. (Not including London.)
The research behind this article was originally published by David Green and was since further analysed by Conservative Action for Electoral Reform.