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Commentary from Dave Wilson

In a functioning democracy there should be little dispute about the need for the equality of each person's vote, nor about what constitutes that "equality". But, after reading Clive Church's comments last week on the boundary commission (LGBCE) review of Canterbury Council's wards, I have come to realise that the LGBCE has a very narrow view of what equality means in practice (download their guidance notes), and I have come to see that their definition works to the detriment of accountable local government in Canterbury district.

Equality of votes

To begin with, the LGBCE has a statutory obligation to deliver equality of votes. They see that as being about "fairness", defined by them as being "when one elector's vote is worth the same as another's." But their view of how "worth" is judged is most peculiar.

When “Fair” isn’t fair

Commentary from Dave Wilson

In a functioning democracy there should be little dispute about the need for the equality of each person’s vote, nor about what constitutes that “equality”. But, after reading Clive Church’s comments last week on the boundary commission (LGBCE) review of Canterbury Council’s wards, I have come to realise that the LGBCE has a very narrow view of what equality means in practice (download their guidance notes), and I have come to see that their definition works to the detriment of accountable local government in Canterbury district.

Equality of votes

To begin with, the LGBCE has a statutory obligation to deliver equality of votes. They see that as being about “fairness”, defined by them as being “when one elector’s vote is worth the same as another’s.” But their view of how “worth” is judged is most peculiar.

In fact, the only way they assess “worth” is on the basis that each Councillor should represent the same average number of voters. That is how they see equality in voting and fairness.

However, that is a highly simplistic position, and results in some very unfair (and startling) outcomes. If we take the election results for this District in 2011, for example, the Conservatives gained only 45% of the vote, but took 74% of the Council seats; more strikingly, the Liberal Democrats and Labour were within 0.5% of each other in the voting (25.1% and 24.6% respectively), but the Liberals took 10 seats against Labour’s three. That looks like prima facie evidence that vote cast on the current basis absolutely do NOT carry equal weight.

In large part this is a vagary of the “first past the post” system, and since that’s not negotiable in this boundary review you might consider it irrelevant. But the problem in Canterbury district is that we have a system of first, second and third past the post in those wards with three members. This wildly skews the electoral result way beyond the normal discrepancies of first past the post, because only three wards didn’t return a block of councillors from the same party (Barton, Heron and Northgate), which is entirely foreseeable when electors elect all seats on the same day. (I suspect, incidentally, that’s likely to be especially detrimental to UKIP in 2015).

Related to this, larger wards tend to erase minority local community views: for example the proposed new Gorrell ward combines the existing Labour held Harbour ward with the Tory held Gorrell ward: one or other of those groups of voters is likely to find it has no representation in 2015, which can hardly be an improvement in electoral fairness.

Votes per voter

A second aspect of fairness which is erased by multi-member wards is the number of votes each elector receives. Under the proposed mixed-sized wards people in Tankerton for example, will get only one vote; but residents in other wards like Barton or Gorrell will get three votes: and again since people tend to vote on Party lines then they will have three times the influence on the Council’s composition. That hardly seems like “equality”, does it?

Workload

Finally, the LGBCE seems to assume that Councillors in geographically large wards (Littlebourne, Bridge and Barham for example) will be able to share their workload. Of course that won’t be true if they represent different parties (however unlikely that is); or is the LGBCE’s assumption that they will in effect divide the ward geographically (which would have the merit of logic), in which case it might as well have been two wards from the beginning? Either way, effective governance has been sacrificed on the altar of numerical equality.

The LGBCE might argue (if they were interested in a dialogue) that they don’t have an legal obligation to create either single member wards or equal sized wards across the district. That’s true, even if it can be considered as a flaw in their remit. But it is supposed to be their starting position, with variable sized wards requiring justification.

In Canterbury district it is perfectly possible to achieve both these outcomes, and meet their other criteria much more effectively than their current proposal does, and yet they have provided no justification for this beyond accepting the Conservative Council’s proposal.

By way of example, Labour’s proposal – which I’m not promoting here, although I was one of the team who put it together – was for 38 single member wards.

It complied much more precisely with the LGBCE overall criteria, since it rigidly observed parish boundaries as indicating community boundaries so as to form wards, it observed (and explained) clear ward boundaries based on geographical and community features, and had elector numbers within the generally acceptable range (although we knew it wasn’t precisely accurate, since we had to make some assumptions about population growth figures without the data the LGBCE has access to).

I think that we showed that in principle a single member ward solution was achievable and we argued that this is much more representative of communities, and hence more democratic.

Nonetheless, since Labour was the only group to promote that idea I accept there is no consensus for it. But LGBCE could just as easily have created 19 two-member wards (38 seats), which would have allowed adjustments to some boundaries to rectify the electoral number’s imbalances, or 13 three member wards (39 seats). Instead, they have accepted almost totally the Conservative Council’s proposal: 16 of the 20 wards proposed by the LGBCE are either wholly as the Tories suggested (6) or have very minor boundary changes (10). That these divide parishes between wards, are based on frequently uninformed and inconsistent assessment of boundaries and communities, or are almost wholly unworkable (Littlebourne, Bridge and Barham, or the new Reculver ward for example) has been wholly ignored.

Of course, it is desirable to have broadly equal numbers of electors per Councillor. To achieve this is much easier if you create larger multi-member wards – a single District wide ward would be the perfect solution to that, mathematically. But under the current proposals, by advocating a mixture of one, two and three member wards the LGBCE is promoting one view of “equality” (the number of voters per councillor) over another (the ability of each voter to affect the result) in a way which is arguably highly detrimental to electoral fairness.

Since the “Council” proposal was forced through in the face of opposition from all the other Parties, it is almost certainly the result of self-interested political calculation by the Tories. We might expect no more than that from them, but we have a right to expect rather more from the supposedly independent Boundary Commission.

Dave Wilson lives in Canterbury and, among many other interests, is a Labour Party member. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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