Wide-ranging local government electoral reforms announced

(Title Image: Sky News)

After much fanfare, yesterday the Secretary for Public Services & Local Government, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), announced proposals for council electoral reform, which will probably form part of a future Local Government Bill.

In summary:

  • Automatic electoral registration, via an all-Wales electronic register.
  • A pilot at the next local elections (due in 2022) where people could vote in places other than a polling station, vote electronically and/or vote on different days – subject to Electoral Commission approval.
  • All foreign residents and 16-17-year-olds will be able to vote at the next local elections; this might (but not necessarily will) be extended to prisoners.
  • Individual councils will be able to choose whether to switch to the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system (where you rank candidates by preference).
  • Local election candidates will only have to publish the ward they live in, not their full home address. Candidates will also be able to publish policy statements on council websites but will have to declare membership of a registered political party or face disqualification.
  • Council employees will be allowed to stand for election to the local authority they work for; they will, however, have to resign if elected.
  • Remuneration/pay for councillors will be reviewed to enable people to take breaks from employment.
  • Assembly Members will no longer be able to sit as both an AM and a local councillor (known as “double-jobbing”).
  • Returning officers – a duty automatically assigned to a local authority’s chief executive – will no longer be able to claim fees for running elections at local or Welsh level.

Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy), said the proposals presented both opportunities and questions. Engagement with local councils was already poor and she wanted more evidence on the effectiveness of electronic voting, as well as questioning giving 16-17-year olds the vote when a wider age group (18-30s) already felt disillusioned and didn’t turn out.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) supported lowering the voting age but believed it should come alongside improved political/civic education. While she also welcomed the inclusion of STV, she believed it has to be mandatory for all councils and was a duty for government to decide for them.

In reply, the Cabinet Secretary expressed support STV for all elections, but “there wasn’t the support” across Wales to enforce it.

Gareth Bennett AM (UKIP, South Wales Central) backed scrapping returning officer fees and the possible introduction of STV. He was, however, concerned that new voting methods would be open to fraud and described any move to allowing prisoners to vote as “perverse”.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) particularly welcomed automatic voter registration and lowering the voting age, as well as scrapping returning officer fees and “double-jobbing”. He would like to see a common electoral register so people can vote at any polling station.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) broadly welcomed the statement, with reservations on breaking the link between citizenship and the right to vote; it may set a worrying precedent by allowing non-citizens to eventually stand for election too. He would also like shorter council terms; “five years is too long” and was against barring AMs from also being councillors as it should be “for the electorate to decide”.

That was later echoed by Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central) – who’s also a councillor – who said there were many conflicts of interest that could bar someone from being an AM, so why is being a councillor and an AM so bad? He was elected (to Cardiff Council) in Fairwater because the electorate wanted him.

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) called for a simplified postal voting system. Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) reported on the enthusiasm amongst pupils in local schools for votes at 16. Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) would like more to be done to encourage under-represented groups to participate and, more importantly, for people to feel there was something worth voting for.

Comment: Some Good, Some Really Good, Some Meh

Let’s start with the really good: automatic electoral registration makes sense – the new system has disenfranchised too many people. The scrapping of returning officer fees, end of “double-jobbing” and forcing councillors to declare party affiliations is long overdue, while the prospect of electronic voting and alike is potentially exciting as long as the plans are practical.

Lowering the voting age to 16 will only make sense if they actually use it; my fear is they won’t – though I don’t see the harm in giving it a go. It’s true people should pay attention to politics at all ages, but you’re often told to eat 5-a-day, get an hour’s exercise a day and what not and people routinely ignore that as well.

I can’t say I’m fond of the idea of potentially granting prisoners a vote (except for those on, for example, day release or tagging), particularly as they won’t even be able to use local authority services – though extending the franchise to permanent foreign residents makes sense.

The biggest damp squib is, of course, a failure to introduce STV wholescale and instead leaving it to individual councils. If they forced it on them there’s a risk that councillors will moan about not having safe seats for life anymore and people might be confused by counting from 1 to 8, but the Welsh Government and AMs can either lead on that or be led.

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