A campaign group has said councils dominated by a single political party – such as Lewisham – suffer from “the absence of any real scrutiny”.
“The citizens of Lewisham are being let down by a broken electoral system which underrepresents thousands of voters,” Darren Hughes, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, told Lewisham Lately this month.
Asked to comment on the balance of Lewisham Council, where 53 of its 54 councillors are from the Labour Party, Hughes said the current voting structure resulted in “one party dominating… in a manner wholly out of sync with their support on the streets.”
The Electoral Reform Society defines its mission as to “champion the rights of voters and build a better democracy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Vote share in the borough
In the 2014 local elections, the Labour Party had a vote share across the borough of 51 per cent (see full detail here), but the balance across the council equates to 98 per cent. The Green Party had a 16 per cent vote share but just one councillor, John Coughlin, was returned. No other political party is represented on Lewisham Council.
Hughes said the dominant make-up of the council allowed “its ruling group to pass policy on everything from bin collections to council tax in the absence of any real scrutiny from opposition voices.”
He also highlighted a report carried out on behalf of his organisation, which found that one-party dominated councils are at much higher risk of corruption (51% higher) than competitive councils.
It concluded that such councils often achieve lower price savings: 2.1 per cent compared to 6.2 per cent achieved by competitive councils in England.
Some councillors within Lewisham’s ruling group may also share misgivings about the balance of power.
One Labour councillor said privately saying that holding a council to account locally was particularly important when there were few opposition councillors.
The opposition (or… the Green councillor) motion for a fairer system
Some have suggested they would be happy to welcome a more representative system. In a full council meeting last November, Lewisham Council’s one-man opposition John Coughlin put forward the following motion:
“This Council believes that a proportional voting system best reflects the democratic values of Lewisham Council and that proportional representation is the optimum expression of the legitimate democratic wishes of the people of Lewisham. This council therefore resolves to identify the most appropriate proportional voting system for the election of councillors in the Borough of Lewisham and seek the agreement of HMG to implement this in Lewisham.”
The motion, which was seconded by Mayor Steve Bullock, was defeated by 21 votes to 20, with three abstentions.
Coughlin’s full speech is on the Lewisham Green Party’s web site.
His party accused Lewisham’s Labour party “of turning its back on democracy” following the motion’s defeat.