Clearly we need a more representative voting system, but what can we do about it?
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A view from East Devon Council leader Paul Arnott
So, good people of East Devon, this week I would like to set you an exam question? Q: In last week’s County Council elections, Conservative candidates in our district polled a total of 22,265 votes across all 12 wards, and non-Conservatives polled a total of 29,654. The question is, how many non-Conservative councillors for the available 12 slots will now be sitting at County?
Even allowing for what one might imagine about the eccentricities of our electoral system, with its odd historical boundaries and so forth, you might guess that the Conservative representation would be perhaps 5, with the non-Tories being 7. Something like that.
In fact, I can report to you that the Conservatives now hold 10 seats at Devon county from our area, and the non-Conservatives just 2. This has caused blood to boil in some quarters, and I can understand that. But in my position, as leader of the Independent East Devon Alliance, I want to move on to the 'what can we do about it?' phase as soon as possible and beyond the anger.
To explain, as a small local registered political party we played nice. Where we were not sure that we were the most likely candidate to challenge the Conservatives we simply did not stand. But in a move of such delicate idiocy that it is almost beyond words, the Labour party did. They took a small but highly significant part of the non-Conservative vote, and our three lost by one or two hundred votes in all three wards.
When asked, they said “we are following orders from national HQ to put up candidates everywhere”. Even if they were paper candidate no-hopers.
Now, I feel really bad pointing this out. Those young candidates have every right to stand for what they want, where they want, and when they want, and I applaud their enthusiasm to enter politics. But this is local politics. Purist ideas of a universal offer from a national party are so idealistic and naïve as to be certain only to hand a victory to the very party they wish not to win.
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This is the problem with democracy; it is not quite what we all think. It has been reported last weekend that in the coming weeks Home Secretary Priti Patel will change the way in which mayors for major cities and areas are elected.
The Conservatives don’t like the current system, where voters may express a first and a second preference. It’s a fair and ensures that a perhaps divisive candidate of one party does not get in with just 40% if their two rivals have polled 30% each.
The Conservatives fancy that as long as they can find a series of Borises, big characters who can attract a popular if not always well-informed vote, they can make a clean sweep of mayoral elections next time on the old first past the post system. That may be alright for national hunt horseracing, but it is no way to encourage true democracy in the 21st century. But doubtless it will sweep through Parliament. No more first and second preferences, a democratic reversal.
Now, I must presume that about 45% of the readers of this column are Conservative voters – well, some of my best friends are Tories, even my son’s godfather (a former Winchester councillor). So I’m not doing you down; I am just pointing out that the best of you I suspect will agree that the representation we need on councils or at government level should reflect the numbers of votes cast, not the eccentricities of ward boundaries etc.
But the real challenge is to those who do not wish to vote Conservative. Please look at those figures again. Nearly 30,000 of you voted non Tory, for 2 county seats. Just over 22,000 voted Tory for 10 county seats. So what are we, what are you, going to do about it?