Council elections

The first major item on the Council agenda last night was the open debate on future Council elections. As it’s likely to get missed out by the press in favour of coverage of the other main item, I thought I’d discuss it in a bit more detail here.

Yet again, we’ve been asked to consider whether we want to continue the practice whereby Colchester Council is elected by thirds, or switch to a system of ‘all-up’ elections. In the current system, there are Borough Council elections in 3 out of every 4 years, with a County Council election in the 4th year. In each of those years, one-third (20 out of 60) of the Council seats are up for election and voters in a three-member ward such as Castle go to the polls every year – for instance, in the last cycle for this ward, Chris Hall was elected in 2006, I was elected in 2007 and Henry Spyvee in 2008. The next cycle starts next year, with Chris’s seat up in 2010, mine in 2011 and Henry’s in 2012.

In an ‘all-up’ system, all the Council seats would be up for election at once (most likely starting in 2011) with the elected Councillors all serving the same four-year term after that (so the next elections would be in 2015, then 2019 etc) but would be on the same ward boundaries as now, so voters would have multiple votes – e.g. in Castle, you’d vote for three candidates, and hopefully one of them would be me.

There are good arguments for and against both options – those in favour of election by thirds argue that it keeps the Council responsive, and ensures Councillors remain in touch with the electorate as well as ensuring that changes in local opinion are reflected promptly, while those in favour of all-up elections argue that having a Council in place for four years encourages long-term thinking and planning, and makes the Council more efficient when it’s not having to effectively shut down for elections every year.

I can see good points on both sides of the argument, but I’m still inclined to remain with the current system, if only because of the iniquities of our current electoral system. I don’t think first-past-the-post is a good system at the best of times, but combining it with simultaneously-elected multi-member wards only serves to exacerbate the problems with it. Whereas under thirds a ward might swing back and forth between different parties and wards will often be represented by councillors from different parties, an all-up election makes it much easier for a single party to take all the seats in a ward with just a small plurality of the vote. Under thirds, it is possible for a party with about 30-35% of the vote to get a majority on the Council, but they have to repeat that success over three years to do so – with all-ups, and it’s happened in many boroughs, a party can get a small share of the vote and have power for four years. When you take into account the proposed change to ‘strong leaders’ that will be coming in most Councils, that’s absolute power for just a small share of the vote.

In my mind, if we’re going to have all-up elections then they have to be on a fair voting system and STV – which is already used in local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland – is the perfect system for that, especially as people are already used to multi-member wards in local democracy. That way, we can have a system that is properly representative of local opinion, but it’s not one of the options on the table, of course.

While the straw poll at the end of the debate last night was in favour of all-up elections, that’s not the end of the discussion on this. It was also generally agreed that the final decision on this matter should be up to the people of Colchester. How we’re going to achieve that is still up for debate (suggestions include a mass poll through the Courier or a referendum at the next local elections) but it is up to you now, so before that whole process starts, feel free to leave a comment with your opinion on what we should be doing.