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Game: I don’t live in a 90% (or 100%) Labour city

Game: I don’t live in a 90% (or 100%) Labour city

🕔12.Jul 2018

Well, last week certainly had its excitements, didn’t it?  First, that penalty shoot-out business.  Then the Local Government Association’s Annual Conference here in Birmingham, and the speculation over whether the PM’s Brexit fudge could suddenly unite her Cabinet for more than 24 hours, writes Chris Game.

But chiefly, of course, there was our inaugural National Democracy Week, celebrating – well, the Cabinet Office wasn’t entirely clear, but either the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote in the 1918 Representation of the People Act, or the 90th of their getting equal voting rights to men in the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, or possibly both.

Like us all, Cabinet Office civil servants will have had their distractions, but it was still a bit insulting to Birmingham democracy fans to have their minister publicise in Parliament’s own online magazine on 2nd July a forthcoming “youth-led event in Birmingham” focused on refugee and asylum seeker issues, which had taken place a fortnight earlier at The Studio in Cannon Street – and as part of Refugee, rather than National Democracy, Week.

But this is footnote trivia to something with the most laudable and ambitious of goals: that “regardless of who we are or where we are from, we must work together to ensure that every member of society has an equal chance to participate in our democracy and to have their say.”

Big words, that ‘equal chance’ bit.  And it obviously covers local democracy too, though the conferencing LGA hardly set the shiniest example – the Association’s Chair attempting a poorly judged joke necessitating women being referred to as ‘birds’, and panels – apart, naturally, from the obligatory ‘Women in politics’ one – reportedly comprising “mostly white men”.

That latter description could, regrettably, be applied to the great majority of our elected and supposedly democratic institutions – though no longer to every last one in the West Midlands.

Sandwell Council currently comprises the highest proportion of women members not only in our region, but quite possibly of all the nation’s principal councils.

Last summer’s study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that only 33% of councillors and 17% of council leaders in England were women, with the gender imbalance on the new Mayoral Combined Authorities being far worse still – that in the West Midlands constituting, as noted at the time, an (almost) Wholly Male Combined Authority.

Over 3,000 more women needed to be elected, the IPPR reckoned, to achieve equal numbers of male and female councillors – and Sandwell, to its considerable credit, did its bit in one go.

Since the recent council elections, exactly half of Sandwell’s 72 councillors have been women, with at least one in all 24 wards.  No ward misses out, while Tividale and Cradley Heath/Old Heath are, as it were, triply blessed.

The 10-member cabinet isn’t (yet) quite evenly balanced, but it’s worth noting that Deputy Leader and cabinet member for neighbourhoods and communities is the impressive Syeda Khatun, nearly 20 years ago the first Bangladeshi woman to win a council seat in the West Midlands.

The council’s equality statistic and achievement deserve greater recognition than I’m aware of its having received so far – particularly as in more traditional measures of democratic representation, it tends to finish at the other end of any tables, and still does.

In those May elections Labour candidates in Sandwell received just over two-thirds of the votes cast – and took three-thirds of the seats: the lot, bringing the party’s councillor total to 70 out of 72.

Meanwhile, Conservative candidates contested every seat, winning nearly a quarter of the votes cast – in wards, moreover, where their supporters must have known that under our wildly disproportional ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) electoral system they were backing a pretty hopeless cause – and getting for their pains precisely zero councillors.

There are various ways of expressing statistically just how far such an outcome is from perfect proportionality – where each party’s percentage of seats would exactly reflect the percentage of votes won – but the traditionally standard formula would put the deviation from proportionality at around a third.

Which is high – no, multi-storey. By the same disproportionality measure, the highest House of Commons figure in modern times is just under a quarter – in Mrs Thatcher’s 1983 landslide and again in David Cameron’s surprise 2015 win – and most European legislatures are currently well under 10%.

It’s what these statistics mean, though, that really matters – and Sandwell’s figure means that about a third of the (here, Labour) councillors would not be entitled to sit in that council chamber on the basis of their party’s vote share, and that the same number of other parties’ candidates are excluded.

Returning, then, to the Democracy Week theme: were the 20,000 or so Sandwell voters who in May cast their ballots for Conservative, Green, UKIP, Independent and other candidates without seeing a single one elected for their troubles – let alone all those who couldn’t be bothered even to ‘waste’ their votes – really being given “an equal chance to participate in our democracy and have their say”?

Coming closer to home (literally), I remember, when I first visited Birmingham for my job interview, it was earnestly explained to me that politically it wasn’t at all a one-party Labour fiefdom – like, say, a Sheffield or Stoke – but a city whose council swung regularly between shortish spells of Labour and Conservative control and whose MPs divided similarly (8 Labour, 5 Conservative, I seem to remember).

Today, the parliamentary split has changed dramatically to 9 Labour, 0 Conservative, and we have to include Sutton Coldfield’s Andrew Mitchell to eliminate that Tory bagel.

I know that Birmingham’s not a one-party city, and so do the great majority of its citizens, but our current parliamentary representation tells a different story.  If you’re not Labour, it’s hard to feel you’ve got anything like an equal chance to have your democratic say.

To make the point, I thought I’d test how in Birmingham the votes actually cast in the 2017 General Election could, simply if counted differently, have produced rather different, and democratically more inclusive, outcomes.

Yes, I know there’s nothing very novel in this. Following every General Election nowadays, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) and others will run similar exercises on a national basis – as shown in my first table.

As it happened, the more telling indictment FPTP critics like ERS had of the 2017 Election result was less its disproportionality, but that for the second time in three attempts it had failed to do the one thing that supposedly justified all those disproportionalities.

A system expressly designed and skewed to produce a majority for some, any, single party, almost irrespective of actual votes cast, had, as in 2010, failed to do even that.

Theresa May’s knee-jerk panic bribe to the Democratic Unionists ushered in the political and parliamentary undemocratic mess she’s in today – and that at least would not have happened under any of the other systems modelled in the table, none of which would have distorted the Conservative representation to the same extent.

The three alternative/fairer systems in the ERS table were the Alternative Vote (AV) – the non-proportional system offered by the Coalition Government and rejected in the 2011 referendum; the Additional Member System (AMS), used for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the London Assembly; and the Single Transferable Vote (STV), used in Northern Ireland and Scottish local government.

Enterprising as the ERS exercise is, it has its limitations: its being done on a national scale, the necessary assumptions involved in modelling some of the systems, and the fact that few English voters outside London have first-hand experience of them.

Most of us, however, have had at least the opportunity to vote in a European Parliament (EP) election, most recently in 2014.  So, partly as a kind of recognition that that’s one pleasure we won’t have again in 2019 or thereafter, I thought I’d take the actual votes cast in the 2017 Election and see how Birmingham’s ten seats would have been allocated using the ever-so-slightly-involved d’Hondt system of party list proportional representation used in EP elections.

My assumption is that voters’ 2017 votes for individual named candidates were cast instead as in an EP election – for a party list containing the names of the party’s candidates, and in this case covering all nine Birmingham parliamentary constituencies plus Sutton Coldfield.

The totals are counted and the seats allocated by a series of increasing divisors – as described at length in the BBC explanation and shown beautifully in technicolor in my table.

D’Hondt is a very widely used system, though by no means the most arithmetically proportional of its type – favouring larger parties, for instance, at the expense of smaller. In this single 2017 case, though, it’s surely hard to argue that it or other possible PR systems wouldn’t have done a better job, both locally and nationally, than the no-longer-fit-even-for-its-own-purpose First-Past-The-Post.

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