This is one of the most important posts I’ve written. It goes to the heart of local democracy. Because by 2017 the process of undemocratisation of local politics in Penarth will be firmly established.
As I first noted here, the present Penarth wards of Cornerswell, Plymouth, St. Augustine’s and Stanwell will dissolve in 2017. Stanwell and Plymouth will merge to become the 4-member super-ward of Penarth South and St. Augustine’s and Cornerswell will join Llandough to become the 5-member super-ward of Penarth North with Llandough. Sully remains unchanged at 2 members.
This is catastrophic news for those of us who value democracy.
Let’s start off by stating that I have never heard anyone in St. Augustine’s or Plymouth complaining about their disenfranchisement as a result of having a worse per-capita representation at local authority level. Not once, ever. Just to confirm, the number of electors per councillor for the Penarth/Sully/Llandough wards is as follows:
- Cornerswell – 2,015
- Llandough – 1,501
- Plymouth – 2,293
- St. Augustine’s – 2,395
- Stanwell – 1,632
- Sully – 1,807
In the foreword to their draft proposals for enhancing democracy in the Vale of Glamorgan, the Local Government Boundary Commission states:
An important principle for our work is to aim to achieve a better democratic balance within each council area so that each vote cast in an election is, so far as reasonably practicable, of the same weight as all others in the council area. The achievement of this aim, along with other measures, would be conducive to effective and convenient local government.
It seems to me that the only substantive principle the LGBC uses is to achieve an equal weighting of votes – despite the Commission being required “to provide for there to be a single member for each electoral division” (although the Minister has directed the Commission to “consider the desirability of multi-member electoral divisions”). I’ll be asking the Welsh Government to provide the reasoning for the Minister’s direction to the Commission to find in favour of multi-member wards.
The Penarth ‘problem’ apparently stems entirely from Llandough’s over-representation:
the difference in electoral parity for the existing Llandough electoral division which is 23% below the existing county average of 1,994 electors per councillor and which needs to be addressed in the interests of effective and convenient local government
It appears to be the LGBC’s view that the “interests of effective and convenient local government” are best served by a severe erosion of democracy in Penarth. In attempting to reduce representation in Llandough, and therefore marginally improve representation for the 46 other electoral units in the Vale, their principal effect is to directly worsen democratic opportunity in the 8 Penarth electoral units, and further disenfranchise the electorate from the political process. Let’s examine this further.
The political process already favours established elites – political parties. This is because these are the organisations best placed to put in lots of person-hours walking streets and knocking doors, particularly in the few months before elections. Most candidates will want to publish publicity material as well. And the costs for this? Again, largely borne by the political parties.
But large multi-member wards skew politics even further in favour of established elites. That’s because whereas in a one-member ward with an electorate of, say, 2,395, an independent candidate or a candidate from a party with little in the way of central organisation or funding can realistically hope to canvass a substantial proportion of the electorate over a period of a few months. But in our five-member Penarth North with Llandough? The electorate will be 10,678. The chance of a new entry to politics being able to effectively canvas more than 10,000 electors is nigh on nil. Welcome to the staid land of the big political parties. And let’s not forget the costs of printing 10,000 leaflets instead of 2,000.
It also makes life much easier for the big parties. If you want to canvass 10,000 electors then you can make a decent job of it with 3 or 4 candidates (or even 1 candidate plus plenty of volunteer help), meaning that the candidates themselves have to put less effort in to win. But in seats with individual Members, individual candidates can’t hide behind the efforts of one or two enthusiasts. They have to know, and work, their patch.
But where’s my evidence in support of these contentions? Let’s look at the multiple member wards throughout the Vale to see if a pattern emerges.
- Baruc: 2 Plaid
- Buttrills: 1 Labour, 1 Plaid
- Cadoc: 3 Labour
- Castleland: 2 Labour
- Cornerswell: 2 Labour
- Court: 1 Independent, 1 Labour
- Cowbridge: 3 Conservative
- Dinas Powys: 4 Plaid
- Dyfan: 2 Labour
- Gibbonsdown: 2 Labour
- Illtyd: 3 Labour
- Llantwit Major: 4 Llantwit First Independent
- Plymouth: 2 Conservative
- Rhoose: 1 Conservative, 1 Independent
- St. Augustine’s: 2 Labour
- Stanwell: 2 Labour
- Sully: 1 Independent, 1 UKIP
So 41 of our 47 councillors are elected from 17 multi-member wards. And in just four of those wards (all 2-member wards) are there electoral patterns that deviate from a very strongly-established pattern of bloc election for one party. I’m going to call this pattern of bloc election the ‘Penartharbyd Trend’. Is there anything special about these four wards?
Buttrills is a very special case because although its May result went the way of our pattern with two Labour Members, a by-election provided the opportunity for an upset, as you’ll see here.
Court’s Independent is a former Labour councillor who became Independent in 2010 and was re-elected on that basis. He presumably retains a strong support base from former Labour voters, although the results was still rather close and Labour may well recapture this seat next election.
Former council leader Gordon Kemp lost out in Rhoose to the Independent Philip Clarke, presumably on the same anti-leader wave that swept six other authorities in Wales.
And I’ve previously commented on what went on in Sully here.
So the only multi-member wards that didn’t elect en bloc in line with the Penartharbyd Trend were those with special circumstances.
And the situation after the 2008 election? One sole aberration from the Penartharbyd Trend, in Llantwit Major (3 Independents and 1 Conservative). And similarly in 2004, just Llantwit Major and St. Augustine’s differed from the Penartharbyd Trend.
Back in April I naively suggested that St. Augustine’s would be a seat split with one representative each from the Conservative and Labour parties. Looking back I realise that I should never again suggest a split seat in a multi-member ward unless I have prior notice of something extraordinary going on.
By the by, I also have some sympathy with Llandough Community Council’s view that Llandough issues will become marginalised in a new super-ward. There is a realistic chance that over time no Llandough residents are represented in the Vale Council because all five Members would come from the hugely dominant Penarth North side of the new ward. The LGBC, however, felt that Llandough “would still have a powerful voice in the deliberations of the Council”.
There are two obvious ways to right the wrong of multi-member wards. The first is relatively simple, and it is the application of the recommendations of the Sunderland Commission. Ah, yes, the Commission requested and funded by the Welsh Government that was so influential that its conclusions are no longer available on any government website (I have asked the Welsh Government to put it somewhere on their website). The Sunderland Commission recommended that Single Transferable Vote be used to elect local authority representatives in multi-member wards.
The second is to tear up the Local Government Boundary Review and start afresh with the foremost aim of one-member wards. I’m not going to suggest where the boundaries of these should be drawn, but it seems sensible to keep Llandough as one ward given it’s a distinct community with its own Community Council. Even though its electorate is less than the proposed minimum, the LGBR notes: “there may well be factors relating for example to topography or population of the area where it will be considered that an electoral division of fewer than 1,750 electors to be represented by each councillor is appropriate”. Penarth wards can then be equalised very effectively to 2,084 per councillor – or 2% over the 2,037 average proposed by the LGBR.
I fear that neither of these options will be taken, and Penarth will lose a substantial proportion of meaningful local democracy.
Let’s also bear in mind that:
decisions to alter the existing pattern of multi and single member electoral divisions should only be taken where such proposals for alteration are broadly supported by the electorate
So in relation to keeping Llandough as a single-member ward with proportionally higher representation that would enable the rest of Penarth to revert to single-member wards, we should ensure that the electorate does not support the proposed changes to the wards. That way, the existing single-ward Llandough arrangements could be permitted to stand. And let’s remember that Brian Gibbons in his Direction to the LGBC stated “regard should be had to the need to fix boundaries which are easily identifiable and which recognise local community ties”.
Since the LGBC will “continue to welcome active participation in the reviews by those persons or organisations that have an interest”, I’m going to send them a copy of this post. And I’ll keep you posted with their response.
Finally, a note on hypocrisy. Labour and Plaid Cymru were apoplectic at UK Government plans to redraw Westminster boundaries to make the number of electors much more equal. My take on that can be found here. But it’s a Labour Minister, Brian Gibbons, who wanted the identical process to take place for local authorities. In a coalition government with, you guessed it. Plaid Cymru.