Let’s change the way that we elect our council

By - Tuesday 18th August, 2015

Peter Underwood has had it with our electoral system. Frustrated nationally, he has some ideas for how to fix Croydon’s own political system

‘Make Seats Match Votes’ demonstration on 25th July 2015.
Photo author’s own.

“Viva la revolución! Liberty or death! Down with… ‘first past the post’?”

It’s not a very common battle cry of freedom, I admit. Voting systems used to be the concern of just academics and political theorists. But all that is starting to change.

A recent online petition calling for a change in the voting system has gained nearly a quarter of a million signatures. On Saturday 25th July I attended the Make Seats Match Votes demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament, where groups and speakers from across the political spectrum had gathered to call for a fairer electoral system.

We all know that at the last election the Conservative Party gained only 37% of the vote but over 50% of the seats in the House of Commons. Four million people voted for UKIP and over a million people voted for the Green Party and yet each of them only has one MP. The SNP got 1.5 million votes and yet has more than fifty MPs. It is clear that parliament doesn’t reflect how people voted.

The current voting system produces results that do not reflect the diverse views of the people

This is not a new problem. No government has won a majority of the votes for nearly a hundred years, but the situation is getting worse. Our current voting system for MPs, the ‘first past the post’ system, was designed for a time when there were only two parties to choose from. But we now have five major parties in England plus the national parties in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. The current voting system produces results that do not reflect the diverse views of the people, and in any system that claims to be democratic this is clearly a problem.

This isn’t just a problem of mathematics to make seats match votes. The current system distorts politics.

This becomes most clear at election time. Under our current system most MPs are in a ‘safe’ seat where the result can be predicted before anyone has cast a vote. The MPs don’t need to bother campaigning and people who want to vote for anyone other than the winning candidate are just ignored. The political parties focus all of their efforts on marginal seats and policies are designed to win over those few voters who happen to make a difference in who wins those seats rather than creating policies that are good for everyone in the country.

If we had a more proportional election system then political parties would have to try to win more votes in every area

Croydon provides a perfect example of how this works. Steve Reed and Chris Philp sailed through the election with very little examination of their policies or suitability for the role as they were certain of their majorities. Whereas in Croydon Central every thought and character trait of the two main contenders was debated. The press and everyone’s letterboxes were full of material discussing the pros and cons of the two candidates, their parties and their policies. In Croydon this is equally true of council elections. Croydon North is assumed to be safe Labour, Croydon South safe Conservative and only a few ‘swing’ wards get any attention. And, across the whole of Croydon, anyone who isn’t planning on voting Labour or Conservative finds it very difficult to be heard or to raise issues that the two main parties don’t want to talk about.

If we had a more proportional election system then political parties would have to try to win more votes in every area. The views of all people would have to be taken into account and everyone would know that their vote would make a difference to who was in power.

The distortions of our political system are not just confined to the elections. In Croydon both Labour and Conservatives have been accused of diverting public spending to their safe wards and the swing wards when they are in power rather than spending money where it is needed. Governments with a majority of seats based on a minority of votes are also able to force through policies that most people don’t want. For example in Croydon, if the parties did not have their artificial majorities would they have been able to force through the sale of the Riesco collection? Would the expensive landlord licensing scheme have been brought in in its current form? We can only guess what might or might not happen to individual policies but it is clear that under a more proportional system Croydon Council and the national government would have to take more account of the wide variety of views of the people who live here.

The ‘additional member’ system means that everyone in London can be more confident that their vote will count

For me the case is clear that if we truly believe in democracy then we need an electoral system that more fairly reflects the will of the people. And this is not just some idealist fantasy, most other countries have some form of proportional representation in their national governments and we have some proportional element in most regional elections here in the UK.

Next spring we get to vote in elections for the London Assembly, which uses the ‘additional member’ system. 14 assembly members will be elected on a first past the post system for the constituencies and there will be 11 ‘additional’ assembly members elected to match the votes across the whole of London. So, at the 2012 elections, the Green Party and the Lib Dems didn’t win any of the constituencies but both were given two of the additional member seats to reflect the fact that large numbers of people across London voted for them. This ‘additional member’ system means that everyone in London can be more confident that their vote will count and the assembly discussions better reflect the different views of the people of London.

So what would Croydon Council look like if we used the additional member system here? If there was a different voting system then this may affect the way people vote but we can produce a best guess. For the tables below I have assumed that under an additional member system (AM) each ward in Croydon elects two councillors on a first past the post system and the rest of council is made up of additional members based on the average number of votes each party gained in each ward.



Party Actual




Labour 33









Lib Dems















In 2010 the Conservatives would still have been the largest party and in 2014 Labour would have become the largest party but neither of them would have had an outright majority. Given that neither got anywhere near getting a majority of the votes in Croydon this seems quite fair. The thousands of people across Croydon who voted for someone other than Labour and Conservative would also have someone on the council to representative them.

If we did have a more proportional system and a more diverse range of views on the council then council meetings would no longer be a dull spectacle engineered by whichever party is in power. The council chamber would become a true debating chamber where even the largest party would have to argue for their policies and convince councillors from other parties to vote for them. This would mean that councillors have to spend more time building a convincing set of proposals and arguing them through the chamber, surely a good thing.

The ‘additional member’ system is just one of a number of different proportional election systems and I don’t intend to go through the pros and cons of each one in this article. However I am convinced that it would be far better than the current first past the post system, which is bad for democracy and distorts the way our country and our local authority are run.

If you want to find out more about different forms of voting system then I would suggest starting your research with the Electoral Reform Society website. There is also a petition running on the Government website asking for a referendum on whether we should ditch the first past the post system for general elections.

At a local level, Croydon Council does have the power to change its election system. There is plenty of time left for the council to change the election system in time for the next council elections in 2018 – if they wish to do so.

It will be interesting to see at both a national and local level if our elected representatives decide to stick with the current broken system or put their trust in the people and move to a more democratic electoral system.

Peter Underwood

Peter Underwood

Peter has lived in Croydon for over ten years and currently works for The Conservation Volunteers, running their projects in Croydon and Surrey. Having previously spent years working in Westminster as a civil servant he is now aiming to get back into government through the ballot box. Peter is chair of the Croydon & Sutton Green Party and has put himself forward for selection to stand as a Green Party candidate in the 2016 London Assembly elections.

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  • moguloilman

    All systems have their drawbacks and I agree with Peter that a concentration on marginal wards and creating two classes of MPs, the safe seaters and the marginalistas, are consequencies of the current one.

    Having lived in The Netherlands for a number of years where the system is more like proportional representation I saw some of the drawbacks there of an over-concentration on balance of power holding minor parties and sometimes weeks and months with no government while negotiations continue on coalition forming.

    I lean towards better-the-devil-you-know on this one, although improvements such as the Recall Bill promoted by Zac Goldsmith are I think a good idea.

  • lizsheppardjourno

    Thanks for your article. I’ve supported PR for years, but recent electoral events have shaken my faith. I can’t, surely, have been the only person appalled as the dismal Clegg explained to us why a Deputy Prime Ministerial limo should draw up at his door under every conceivable set of circumstances?

    During 2011′s AV referendum I was moved to the point of attending a meeting of the local campaign. It was entirely dominated by a small clique, all chums from numerous other places, who addressed each other in incomprehensible politics-speak (just like every political party meeting I’ve ever attended, which is a few). I found this beyond ironic.

    I now favour benevolent despotism, on the basis that a dose of benevolence would be worth a bit of despot-ing.

    • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

      To be fair there have never been more than about 4 liberal democrats in Croydon at any particular time so there’s probably a rather limtied conversation. It’s a bit of a historical accident that they’ve never really got established here.

  • http://idioplatform.com/ Jonny Rose

    Hey Peter – I’m all for anything that creates more fireworks in the halls of Katharine Street.

    I recall this is a topic written on before by Mario Creatura (see: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/politics-society/time-reform-council-meetings/). Perhaps an opportunity for some cross-party collaboration :)

  • Anne Giles

    I am very happy with things as they are.

  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    “Whereas in Croydon Central every thought and character trait of the two main contenders was debated”

    To be fair Gavin Barwell seems intent on telling us every thought whether we need to hear it or not so we might as well debate it.