The Sunderland report on Welsh local elections

(recommended STV)

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Among many useful and some important recommendations.

The new national assembly of Wales began solely under Labour party rule. Shortly after, Labour formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This was made possible by party proportional elections, the Additional Member System ( AMS ) which shared seats with smaller parties. Under the terms of their partnership, a commission was set up to review the electoral arrangements of local government in Wales.

The nine-member committee was chaired by Professor Eric Sunderland OBE. The Sunderland report was published in july 2002. Like the Kerley report of their sister commission for Scottish local government, the Welsh drew on the McIntosh report's conception of democracy, which may have influenced these commissions' choice of electoral system.

Beyond the question of the voting method, a complete over-haul of Welsh local electoral arrangements was within the commission's remit. Thirty three recommendations were made. All but two, about the best voting method, were passed unanimously by the committee nine. Two members dissented on the voting method.

Most recommendations were the dull but essential details that go into the practical work of politics. The big ideas of politics can be all but submerged without such small thoughts. Routine work does turn up useful facts: many youngsters said they would be more likely to vote by the internet, especially text messaging. Postal voting needed simplifying.

Improving understanding of local government and turn-out at elections centred on all available means of publicity, including making government sessions more open to the public, and better access for disabled voters. Councillors surgery times should be advertised, local papers publish more proceedings. There should be annual reports, question and answer sessions, and provision for formal petitions from the public.

One unanimous recommendation was controversial: lowering the voting age to sixteen. It is a classic case of reason being up against custom. In ancient Rome, fourteen was the age a boy became a man. But that is a rather distant precedent for civilisation. The commission was reduced to mere common sense: you can get married and get a job at sixteen, so why not the vote?
Reducing the age for councillors from 21 to 18 was also recommended.

Another important commission recommendation was a freepost facility to encourage more local candidates.
The commission wished to reduce the number of nominations for candidature from ten to two. Such a change might have to be reviewed against possible abuses of too easy an admission for candidature. Nominations are the democratic alternative to the prejudice in general elections that the possession of money confers virtue. The candidate is put on bail, like a suspected offender, about to be judged by the public. Less than five per cent support loses his deposit.

The commission advocated special leave for public sector workers and awards to private and voluntary organisations helpful to aspiring candidates.
Involvement of all parts of the community in the whole democratic process was a feature of the report.
Perhaps enough indication has been given here that the commission realised a thoro effort must be made to reverse the decline in participation in public policy-making.

Seven voting systems to choose from.

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The Sunderland commission's terms of reference gave seven voting systems to consider, including the existing first past the post. Other possible systems were not excluded. Neither the commission nor the public made any other suggestions.

Besides the comprehensive attempts to revive local democracy, another merit of the commission's work was the sense it gives of a dialog between the committee and the public. This contrasts to the Jenkins report's blinkered choice of system ( AV+ ) which nobody wanted. The Plant report wanted what appeared best, for its particular party, which nobody wanted, either. Following the Sunderland report's dialog, one sees that the seven candidates, for Welsh local electoral method, were soon reduced.

Party list systems including Additional Member Systems.

No more than two or three very general statements were made in favor of party list systems. No proponents had any practical advice, such as whether the lists would be of candidates for a whole authority. They were unable to say how Independents could be elected on equal terms with party candidates benefiting from their colleagues' vote in a party proportional count.
Many people were familiar with their general properties, tho most needed reminding the system was used in Britain for the European elections.
Some pressure groups said list systems encouraged parties to include under-represented sections of society as candidates. The commission gave some weight to this but couldnt refrain from commenting that they might not be put high enough on the list to be elected.

Most public comments were against the safe seats for those high on the lists, which could be used to favour party loyalists over more popular candidates.

The additional member system was probably the most widely understood in Wales of the alternative systems, because already used for the Welsh assembly.
'A few people' favored it for council elections.

The commission itself allowed the conventional wisdom that AMS provided local links and an element of proportion against one-party rule, perhaps with under-represented groups among the additional members.

Opponents of AMS claimed:

there was confusion and irritation that people who had been unsuccessful in FPTP ( first past the post ) elections might still win a seat by means of their being highly placed on their party's regional list. The National Assembly experience was said to show that AMS generated bickering between constituency and list members in an area and voters were confused as to whom they should call on for advice and support. It was also argued that many people were confused by the requirement... for voters to cast two votes, and... that they did not understand the relation between the two.

Others regarded additional members as second class. The commission asked how would local authorities benefit from councillors with and without constituency responsibilities.
They also asked when seats were uncontested, would additional votes be lost as well?

It was pointed out that the additional members from party lists had the same disadvantages of a straight party list system. The commission endorsed this view.

"There was little interest shown in AV+" ( the alternative vote plus partly proportional party lists ). The commission viewed this as a 'refinement' of AMS. But it is a refinement that involves 'two voting processes', X-voting and ranked voting, which the commission believed 'unnecessarily confusing'. AV+ fared no better than AMS in debate and it is untried any-where in the world.

Reviewer's comments on AMS.

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The usual form of the additional member system is sometimes called the double vote. In any case, the system offers a double safety net for unpopular candidates. Firstly, there is the safe seat system of single member constituencies, where local party predominance guarantees their nominee a place in parliament. This is actually safer than the straight single member system, because there are fewer and larger single member constituencies, which typically fall even more into the hands of the two largest parties. Secondly, the party can ensure any reject is 'elected' by being put high enough on their party list for additional members.

The best known case of this was when the German Christian Democrat leader, Helmut Kohl was defeated in his constituency but still 'elected' from the top of his party's list for additional members. Kohl may have been the victim of chance demographic changes that moved supporters out and opponents into a formerly safe constituency.

Of course, to make chance, rather than choice, the ruling factor is to defeat the purpose of an election. This is all the more so, when the chances are loaded by gerrymandering to ensure a seat is safe for a given party. By accident or design, the monopolies of the single member system ensure local chance frustrates popular choice.
This failure to provide a proper test of public opinion is an example of bad system design.

Effective elections is the only fair criterion of voting method. The curious thing is that the Plant report judged voting methods by how they were effective as anything but elections. The report talked of effective government, effective parties, effective this and that, but never effective elections.

German economic resilience, thru the most appalling governments, has been conveniently over-looked in the wish to confer credit on the additional member system as contributing to post-war recovery. Taking the Plant report by its own dubious standards, one could just as blithely assume that AMS did not offer sufficient safe-guard against German government's bribery and corruption crisis.
British supporters of this system usually have said that Germany's AMS cannot be bracketed with the straight party list system that Italy had, before its Christian Democrats' scandals. But there is a prima facie case for saying that both systems similarly failed to make government accountable.

It is understandable that Welsh voters, for the National Assembly, would be confused because AMS simply does not do what it says it does. The 'personal' vote for a candidate in a single member constituency doesnt serve that purpose. The German Federal Democrat leader Herr Genscher was never elected by his 'personal' or 'direct' vote but appointed from his party's list.
Was he a popular figure or a dud candidate? On this, the system, for all its confusing pretensions, remains silent. Yet this gentleman was deputy leader of the Federal Republic, after the manner of the Vicar of Bray, who 'will be Vicar of Bray still', whether the Christian or the Social Democrats were in power.

This is of some moment for British local government now that a cabinet system has been introduced, after the national model.

Majoritarian systems, especially First Past The Post.

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The Supplementary Vote, used for the London Mayor's election, but otherwise unfamiliar, failed to generate any interest or support. The commission saw no logical reason for this system's restriction to only two ranked choices, unlike the Alternative Vote.

The commission didnt believe it would be equitable to use rural single member constituencies ( with the alternative vote ) with just urban multi-member constituencies ( using the single transferable vote ). This would give disproportionate representation to rural Tories against urban Labour, as they quoted from the Jenkins report.

It would be hard to justify changing to either of these two systems since they do not over-come the main weaknesses of the existing First Past The Post electoral system. All three systems are majoritarian, which means they do not address two of the main requirements, the commission was asked to consider by its terms of reference: diversity of representation and a large enough opposition for effective scrutiny of the powerful cabinet system introduced into local government.

A statistical profile of Welsh councillors revealed 99% white, 81% male, 59% older than average and 48% retired. Besides this distortionate representation, feebleness of opposition was reflected in Wales' high proportion of seats that are not even worth contesting: 208 or 16.4% in 1995, and 211 unopposed out of 1270 councillors in 1999.
Disheartened opposition may also be discerned in a low turn-out at 47%, becoming 41% when proportionally taking into account the uncontested seats.

Reasons given in public for First Past The Post ( FPTP ) followed conventional lines. Their case was similar to that of the 1977 Select Committee on Euro-elections. That rare occasion, of official apologetics for the single member system, was an attempt to preserve it for all elections on the British mainland. The attempt succeeded until the first Blair government.

FPTP was said to be tried and tested. Such a statement unthinkingly hangs onto current electoral usage or rather abusage. The point is that the continually tried test has consistently failed to produce representative results.
This failure is tacitly admitted in the lauded tradition of winning candidates 'representing' ( that is patronising ) constituents, who didnt vote for them.

The remark that FPTP involves consulting over constituency boundaries gives away the fact that this is a system which is always moving the boundaries. Boundaries, by definition, should offer a stable identity to communities.
The assertion that FPTP produces 'strong and stable government' expresses the belief in a system that gives a monopoly of power to the largest factions.

Politics becomes a sporting contest 'first past the post', in which the 'winner takes all'. This spoils system is a mock battle, in which 'victors' subjugate 'losers.'
The cynical assumption is that people are incapable of reconciling interests, so that there is no other option than a ritualised war of 'dominate or be dominated.'
Lacking is the critical role of giving due weight, and no more than due weight, to the opposition in advising and warning a ruling interest against over-looking other interests, which altogether go to make up the well-being of the whole community.

First-Past-The-Post supporters have become comfortable in its vices, parading them as virtues.

Comments on the brief dissent for FPTP, by two commission members.

Two, of the nine members of the Sunderland commission, favored First Past The Post in single member constituencies. The dissenting two held that multi-member constituencies were less local and therefore less accountable. The single member system gave 'a direct link' between councillors and constituents.

Edward VII said to his Liberal ministry that he was glad they decided against the channel tunnel. He said what we need are personal relationships not physical relationships. 'The Peacemaker' fostered cordial relations with France, after the likes of 'the Fashoda incident'. For better or worse, Britain now has the chunnel. But the old king's principle still applies.
The single member system gives the closest physical relation between councillor and constituents, that electorally precludes much, if not most, of the closest personal relationships.
The McIntosh report, as quoted by the Kerley report, appreciated this point.

The single member is only 'the most accountable,' in the least accountable system, where there is no other that constituents can turn to. The two dissenters condoned safe seats, which make the representative accountable to his nominating party rather than the public.
All the minority two offer is the promise of parties patronising candidates ( their protogés ) from minority groups. But this is at cross-purposes with the single member system, which is to hand over power to the largest factions.
In other words, it's a sop, not a real change of heart, which would support representative elections.

The commission found one of the three main public attitudes was that safe seats made it impossible to influence the out-come of elections. To the two party loyalists, this was not one of the 'issues that really matter to communities', tho their citizens think otherwise.
The commission, at least the majority seven, wished 'both the diversity of people and their diversity of opinion to be properly reflected in council membership.'

The appeal of the commission's minority two for FPTP is to 'the overwhelming support' of 19 out of 22 councils and the majority of councillors. Notice how 'overwhelming support' reduces to undefined 'majority', as a fiction upon fiction of the winner-takes-all system.

The dissenters' evidence gives away a party-centred attitude to public elections. One dissenter was a Tory, the other Labor. The commission heard another of three main public attitudes to be that parties and politicians are all the same. The dissenting two offer an example of 'party first', whichever party the politician happens to come from.

The minority two cited the fall in turn-out at Welsh Euro-elections, from 36% in 1994 to 28.1% in 1999, with the introduction of 'the most proportional system, the party list system.' By this, they mean the most extreme imposition of proportional partisanship. The closed list was vehemently opposed, among those who had even heard of it -- no thanks to the parties. Nobody wanted it in the country, just as they didnt, at the Sunderland commission's hearings. The closed list was a back-room deal between the Labour and Liberal leadership, for co-operation in the 1997 general election.

The Single Transferable Vote: comments on remarks against.

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To the commission, opponents of STV said that the constituencies, being of multi-members were too large. This was not an impressive complaint, since over half of Welsh councillors are elected from two- to five-member constituencies.
With an x-vote for each seat, the largest faction tends to take all the seats in a multi-member constituency. FPTP in multi-member constituencies is aggravated distortionate representation. STV in multi-member constituencies gives proportional representation. Opponents made the ridiculous excuse that STV would cause bickering between members of different parties in the same multi-member constituency. Thus, they showed their preference for members of the same party monopolising the multi-member constituencies, which causes 'bickering,' alright, from majorities or large minorities of constituents with wasted votes.

Opponents then had the gall to say STV would result in minority administrations. Six months after Hare's system came out, in the mid nineteenth century, J S Mill noted how opponents, of this forerunner of STV, threw the faults of FPTP onto its remedy. Indeed, he used this very example, pointing out that this proportional representation precisely ensures majority rule.
If no one party wins a majority, the most prefered coalition to form a majority can be shown by how voters transfer from one party's candidates to another party's candidates.

Opponents of STV claimed it was not democratic because it would give primacy to second, third and fourth choices. This might be true of the alternative vote or supplementary vote, whereby lower orders of preference count for as much as higher orders, if they come into play. STV primarily depends on electing the candidates with the most first preferences in multi-member constituencies. An Irish election, reviewed by the Electoral Reform Society, showed first preferences accounted for over two-thirds of the elected candidates. Mostly, high preferences accounted for the rest.
With STV, a voter's lower choices cannot count against their higher choices.

The arguments against STV are as benighted as ever.

Sunderland commission majority support for STV.

Seven of the nine on the Sunderland commission believed the moderately sized multi-member constituencies, contemplated for using with STV, would give proportional enough representation against a one-party state.

More or less seats per constituency would flexibly fit every size of community, without torturing their boundaries. Tho the constituencies would be larger, the system would be wholly constituency-based.

The parties would be obliged to field slates of candidates, typical of the social diversity of the multi-member constituency, to gather as many votes as possible from all groups. This is especially as the voters can prefer candidates, in order of choice. And individual candidates can be prefered from candidates of the same, as well as different parties ( as the hearing's STV supporters said ).

Apparently, opponents of STV claimed that a first, second, third etc order of choice, for candidates, would not be understood. The commission regarded this as 'an insult' to the voters and themselves.

The commission was aware that STV gives Independents benefit of a proportional count, as well as party candidates. Ten per cent of Irish councillors are Independents.

The commission suspected first past the post, more than STV, favored Independents. This notion can be dispelled. As the commission itself said, STV treats Independents on an equal basis to party candidates, unlike party lists. In may 2002, the Irish parliament, the Dail, elected 14 Independents. As I discussed in my review of the Kerley report, first past the post effectively abolished Independents for the Commons. STV allowed Independents to be returned from the university constituencies.

Politics should be progressive. So little seems to have been achieved since Mill's hopes for representative government. In this respect, I would like to congratulate the Sunderland commission for its substantial contribution.

The cabinet system and local government.

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Local authorities already tend to imitate the government of the day. I remember the 'passionate intensity' of Thatcher government for hunting down civil service leaks. ( The current Blair government shows this attitude has never really changed. Such governmental energy might have been devoted to worthier ends. ) It so happened that some unauthorised information also had been disclosed in an English locality. And sure enough, an imitative local administrative task force was mobilised to leave no stone unturned to find and punish the louse responsible.

The cabinet system is a party-controlled system, whose success as a mode of government may be denied. Successful or not, will local government be conformed to it? Or will the model prove just too much at odds with the desires of local people?

The cabinet system is under-pinned by the doctrine of collective responsibility. John Mackintosh, the author of The British Cabinet, cited the example of Lord Melbourne's ministry. Melbourne is supposed to have said that whatever we decide about the Corn Laws, let's make sure we do it together.

Mackintosh said the doctrine is not based on morality. In other words, it is the expedience of 'Dont rock the boat.' The cabinet discusses its differences in secret, to hide divisions, and then imposes its outward unanimity on its party thru the whipping system, to maintain a majority vote in parliament for control of government.

When Queen Victoria asked Lord Derby, whether he had the support he needed of the Independents, to win a parliamentary vote, he replied: Ma'am, an Independent is someone who cannot be depended on.

This quip shouldnt lead to a partisan prejudice against Independents as some sort of alien life form. No Victorian member was more independent than John Stuart Mill. No-one more openly told his constituents how individual his views and commitments were. Yet he belonged to a group of Independent Liberals.

The Labour party was originally the Independent Labour party, from assimilation by the Tory and Liberal parties. Besides independent interest groups, like the miners MPs, Labour also had rebels like 'the Clydesiders' ( including Shinwell, who supported STV ).

Likewise in 1945, A P Herbert was an Independent MP. By this time, Independents only survived thru single transferable vote elections from the university constituencies. But, as his election address states, he generally supported the Conservatives, merely reserving the right to vote according to his conscience, rather than always obey the party whips from top-down dogmatists.

The destruction of independence of thought has lowered MPs prestige and demoralised them. It leaves politics to the place-men, who serve manifesto doctrines, that the electorate has to swallow whole, without the free electoral system to discriminate among individual candidates who support this or that particular policies.
The question is whether a local government cabinet system will repeat the history of the Commons and exterminate Independents, as well as independence of thought, thru party whips.
Who knows?
The best guess may be that it is more likely to serve as a warning local communities will want to avoid. If so, they will do well to choose the single transferable vote to encourage the right of representatives to exercise their own judgement, rather than be unquestioning partisans.
Suppressing Independents in government, national or local, issues from a general denying that mature right to independence of mind, asserted by Edmund Burke.
What is more, freedom of thought is the main instrument of progress, achieved so spectacularly in science, and resisted so strenuously by the dangerous anachronisms of the partisans' top-down politics.

Richard Lung.

14 august 2002.

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