The wrong answer


Image by Coventry City CouncilCC-BY-NC-ND

Amidst a low turnout, the people of the English cities have largely rejected adopting a London-style Mayorality system.

The basic reason for introducing such a system is that local government is broken in England. Councils have either got permanent, unmovable majorities on one hand or shifting, unstable coalitions on the other. Neither is working well: permanent majorities lead to a lack of dynanism in councillors and stodgy, slow-to-react councils.

Shifting coalitions and their cousins – councils swinging between one party and another each election – mean that councillors spend their time fighting (sometimes literally), backstabbing, playing to the gallery and otherwise being very insular and political. This results in council policy forever changing and the council services being disrupted.

The Mayoral system is meant to stop that. Instead of such poor extremes, you get one man (almost always a man, alas) with the power concentrated in his hands for four years and the councillors act as the check and balance on him. This sounds great in theory but in practice it’s the same again – either it’s permanently the same man or it swings back and for between two wildly opposing men, albeit only once every 4 years rather than every May.

The solution is obvious to all politicians at all levels, but they don’t like it. They don’t want to let the solution in through the door because when people discover how well it works, they start wanting it for everything. The solution is the supervote, also known as the single transferrable vote (STV).

The supervote put all of the power in the hands of the electorate. The parties no longer have the power of patronage; there is no longer a need to vote for someone you dislike in order to avoid electing someone you dislike more; there are no permanent majorities; there are no dramatic swings. And above all there’s no tactical voting. Because of that, the need to punish or reward the distant national government in London via a local election disappears.

What the individual votes for, the council gets. Your party’s candidates are all elected together but you get to chose between them. Suddenly you have all the power over the parties and the councillors. If you’re on the left of Labour, you can vote to push Labour locally to the left. Ditto if you’re on the right of the Tories.

Supervote does result in more coaltions, but they are more stable – councillors don’t have to guess what people want, they already know. Political infighting doesn’t work because the public will use the supervote to punish it. We get more responsive councillors and a more responsive council. Turnout goes up because the vote means something. If your councillor is rubbish, you have another one to turn to. If they’re all rubbish, you have the power to remove them – even without changing what party you vote for.

The power of the supervote is truly awesome. And that’s why the politicians don’t want you to have it.


  1. Every four years in London we have council elections. We elect our councillors all at once – not this three in every four years stuff.Every election I have a list of three Labour candidates, three Tories and three Lib Dems and a smattering of others. I can vote three times, for each available post. Being a Labour stronghold, Labour always win all three seats. In the Conservative half of the borough (and my council is equally split) the Conservatives always win the three seats.It’s bonkers.

  2. Block voting – being given 3 Xs to use on 3 candidates on a paper with 9 candidates or so – is the worst of all world, to the point of being completely and utterly undemocratic.And yet block voting is the easiest to change to the supervote. Instead of plumping with three Xs, you would rate 1, 2, 3 (and so on). In your area, that would generally mean 2 Labour councillors and one of the others would be elected – the most useless Labour councillor being pushed out. This would reflect the intentions of the voters much better and would keep the other two councillors on their toes.That’s another reason they won’t give us that option.

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