Opinion: When and how should you elect councillors in the city?

I’d like to highlight for residents another consultation from the City Council: this time about ‘electoral cycles’, writes Nick Sandford, LibDem Peterborough City Councillor.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 5th August 2022, 12:19 pm

Currently a third of city councillors (usually one councillor in each ward) are elected in three of the four years in each ‘electoral cycle’.

In the fourth year we have elections for the mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

As part of the Council’s ‘Improvement Plan’ to enable it to resolve its severe financial problems, the Government has insisted that a consultation is carried out on a proposal to scrap the current system and instead hold an election for all councillors once every four years.

Have your say on local elections

Government thinks that this will help to improve “stability” and “long term planning”, even though there is not much actual evidence for this.

In fact a nearby council who got into a much worse financial mess than Peterborough, Northamptonshire County Council, already had four yearly elections.

And one big reason councils find it hard to do long term planning is that Government persists in only telling councils how much grant they will receive for one year in advance…and often they only find out the figure a few weeks before they have to set their budget for the next year.

So currently there is a consultation on the PCC website asking for people’s views on changing how often councillors are elected.

The question is asked in a rather loaded way: “Do you think councillors should be voted for at the same time, meaning there is only one election every four years?".

There is no mention of how we do elections at present and seemingly with a clear intention that people should answer the question with a “yes”.

The City Council Comms Team should be able to do better than that and ask the question in a fairer way.

So, what do Lib Dems think of the proposal? Well we are happy for the council to consult people about it.

In fact, we want this to be part of a much more comprehensive review of how the council is run, with a view to making it more open and accountable to local people.

We favour having elections for the whole council every four years but only if the voting is done fairly using a proportional voting system (known as PR) where the number of seats a party gets reflects their number of votes.

That’s what happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland in local elections, where the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system is used.

People are asked to number the candidates in an order of preference, rather than just marking three crosses.

If you don’t have STV (or another fair voting system) but use “First Past the Post” for a whole council election, the evidence shows you can get dramatic swings in numbers of seats for only a small change in numbers of votes.

There was a famous election in a London Borough in the 1960s where a council started off as having 48 Labour councillors and no Conservatives and, after the elections, ended up with 48 Conservative councillors and no Labour.

Such distortions of the views of the electorate are not good for democracy and can lead to more instability, not less.

Having “elections by thirds”, at least means that the composition of a council changes gradually and more in line with changes in voting intention.

So it’s probably the next best thing if we can’t have a PR system of voting. It also means that people get to vote for their councillors most years, which increases accountability.

And it is better for smaller parties, as they need to find fewer candidates in any year to contest the elections effectively.

But Lib Dem councillors want to hear what you (the people of Peterborough) think.

And we will consider all views expressed before deciding finally how to vote on the issue. It’s likely a decision will be made at the October Full Council meeting.

Finally, it’s great to hear that Labour have adopted a new parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Peterborough.

You probably won’t know his name, as says he comes from “nearby Milton Keynes”, which when last I heard was in Buckinghamshire and nowhere near Peterborough.

Sadly, he joins a long line of previous Labour and Conservative parliamentary candidates chosen from outside the City.

There are lots of passionate and able Labour councillors here in Peterborough who I think could have done the job fairly well.

But we are friendly and welcoming people here in Peterborough and so I look forward to debating and engaging with our new Labour PPC in a vigorous but good humoured manner in the next few years in the run up to the next General Election.