English locals and AV comments

Continuing from yesterday’s post on elections to devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, today comes an overview of the results of local elections in England as well as an overview of the AV referendum held on May 5.

English locals

In the patchwork of English local government, 279 councils of various types were up for reelection and in half the entirety was up and in the other half only a third was up. In all 36 metropolitan boroughs, a third was up. In 30 unitary authorities (UAs) the entirety was up while in 19 UAs only a third was up. In 126 district authorities, the whole council was up and in 68 districts a third was up. Finally, five direct mayoral elections were held. I believe these particular seats were last contested in 2007, though I’m probably wrong. These elections are notable for being the first held under a Tory government in years, and the first locals in a very, very long time where the LibDems are in government. As you all know, government hasn’t been a good experience for LibDems.

The headline results are:

Conservative 157 councils (+4) and 4820 councillors (+81)
Labour 57 councils (+26) and 2392 councillors (+800)
LibDems 10 councils (-9) and 1056 councillors (-695)
Residents Association 1 council (nc) and 48 councillors (-3)
Others 0 councils (-1) and 602 councillors (-177)
Green 78 councillors (+13)
Liberal 8 councillors (-2)
UKIP 7 councillors (nc)
Boston Bypass Indies 0 councils (-1) and 4 councillors (-14)
BNP 2 councillors (-11)
EDs 2 councillors (+1)
Independent Community and Health Concern 1 councillor (-3)

The BBC’s results page has fuller details on all councils. The overall picture is favourable to Labour, slightly favourable to the Tories and a disaster for the Liberal Democrats. The LibDems have obviously been hit for their participation in cabinet, but the Conservatives themselves haven’t suffered all that much from the government’s relative unpopularity. It has kept its base intact, which obviously can’t be said of the LibDems.

In the details, the LibDems suffered numerous routs in various cities in northern England where they had managed to build themselves a base in local government. They had already lost Liverpool, which they had held since 1998, in 2010, and suffered an utter rout there after a pathetic campaign which allowed Labour to win a supermajority, picking up 11 seats for a total of 62 against 22 LibDems. A pitiful result. Labour picked up its largest target in the region, Newcastle, held by the LibDems since 2004, with a gain of 10 seats from the LibDems to take 43 seats against 32 LibDems. In Sheffield (Clegg’s home turf), governed by the LibDems since 2008, Labour gained 9 seats to take 49 seats against 32 LibDems and enough for absolute control. I haven’t run through all the details, but the general word is that the LibDems seem to have performed better in places where contests were Tory/LD.

AV referendum

When Nick Clegg accepted to form the ill-fated coalition with David Cameron, holding a referendum on electoral reform was one of his demands. If successful, general elections would have been held under the alternative vote (AV) system rather than the current FPTP system. AV is used in Australia for elections to the House of Representatives and in some local elections in the US, where it is known as IRV. The Wikipedia page on AV/IRV explains the system in more detail, and Britain-vote’s guide to AV is well worth reading as well.

As a very brief overview, an AV/IRV system keeps single-member constituencies but instead of having the candidate winning the most votes win outright, voters must rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has 50%+1, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and his votes redistributed. This process continues until a candidate has 50%+1 or, alternatively, when there are only two candidates left standing. In Australia, voters are required to preference all candidates (those who don’t have their ballots voided) whereas the proposed UK-AV did not require voters to preference all candidates. The guide to AV, linked above, explains the details of the working and of the effects of AV on elections in much more breadth.

AV is not proportional representation in the pure sense of PR. AV does not lead to more proportional elections than FPTP, and in some cases it might lead to some results which are even more disproportionate than FPTP. AV’s main advantage, for its proponents, is that winners elected under AV have a much broader base of support or, in Australia, 50%+1 support. But they’re not necessarily the “most liked” candidate, rather they often tend to be the “least disliked” candidate. As to the above point of AV not being PR in the pure sense of PR, Australia provides a good example as the Greens hold only one seat out of 150 even if they polled nearly 12%. Research by the BBC on the the effects of AV on past British elections shows that while the LibDems would be stronger they would not be represented to their actual weight (especially in years such as 1983). Furthermore, in 1997, the Tory rout would have been an absolute humiliation if AV has been used as AV allows voters who hate one party (eg; LibDem and Labour voters who were anti-Tory in 1997) to coalesce even more than under FPTP.

Both campaigns were pretty atrocious, though I personally found the no campaign even more demagogic and atrocious through its use of strawmen arguments or worthless demagogic drivel. One NO2AV ad could basically be summarized as “AV is way too difficult, so it sucks”. I guess the reason why both yes and no campaigns resorted to such demagoguery and drivel is that electoral reform is a non-issue for most people aside from psephologist, some hardcore partisans and people who read books on such stuff and throw hissy fits because the 1986 election in country X was not proportional. Most voters don’t care much about such stuff, a lot don’t understand or don’t bother to understand proposed changes and those who have minimal interest will be easily convinced by lies and deceit rather than by thought-out 10-page papers arguing both sides. In most cases, finally, unless voters have memory of a very disproportional election not too far back, they’ll lean heavily in favour of the status-quo (FPTP). I also believe wording of the question matters somewhat. This question asked ‘do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?’. My opinion is that using words like ‘current […] system’  or similar phrases do hold sway for the low-information voters who do bother to vote and influences them to favour said ‘current system’.

In this particular referendum, the LibDems supported the yes and the Tories supported the no. Labour doesn’t have an official position, but Ed Miliband supported the yes. Smaller parties such as the SNP, Plaid, SDLP, Greenies, APNI, UKIP and Scottish Greens supported the yes. The DUP, BNP, UUP and GPNI opposed AV. A handful of voters, who I wager are overwhelmingly well-informed PR partisans, opposed AV because it wasn’t proportional enough.

Turnout was 42%, and results were as follows:

NO 67.9%
YES 32.1%

The Guardian has a cool interactive shaded map of results by counting area.

Opposition was highest in England, and somewhat lower in Scotland and Wales (but still over 60% opposed) and lowest (56% no) in Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales are used to some form of non-FPTP system. Northern Ireland uses STV for all elections except Westminster. Opposition was very high in Conservative rural England, often over 70% opposed, but also significantly high in working-class areas throughout England.

Support was highest in urban areas, or in areas with significant concentrations of students. Oxford and Cambridge voted 54% in favour, while more or less well-off urban areas in Glasgow and Edinburgh voted in favour. In London, areas which voted in favour are not, in general, particularly wealthy but a lot seem to have significant bobo-type populations but also large deprived immigrant populations. The pattern of areas with a highly educated population or a young population leaning more heavily in favour of electoral reform seems to be a constant throughout those places which have held referendums on such matters.

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Posted on May 7, 2011, in Referendums, United Kingdom. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. If you think Liverpool was bad for the LibDems, check out the results in Manchester…

  2. How detailed are the AV referndum results? Is Nortern Ireland as a whole the lowest level with published figures?

  3. I thought they’d report NI by council area, but apparently they just reported NI as a whole (sadly).

  4. A couple of points which spring to mind:
    1) It is a mistake to look at the wealth/deprivation as an explanation for the London boroughs which voted yes to AV. The boroughs in question all have large trendy lefty areas, and as they were the most keen on AV, it is likely that they had a much higher turnout rate than the derived areas, especially as London was only voting on AV.

    2)The locals (except for the Welsh assembly) were probably better for the tories than for labour. Although the raw numbers look good for labour, the seats up for election were last fought in 2007 which was the peak of the tory lead over labour. Michael Thrasher had suggested 1000 gains as being the point at which labour could say they had a good night.

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