A One-Party Race? A look at the voting systems in Manchester

Election season in Manchester brought with it little surprise, after a year’s delay due to the pandemic, with incumbent Andy Burnham winning the mayorship by a landslide.

This result was not much of a shock, and not much really appears to have changed in the makeup of local government in Manchester as a result. 

Burnham had been the favourite to win throughout, after already holding the position for four years; and his Party, Labour, have also maintained their control over Manchester City Council. 

This has been in spite of the Party struggling nationally, with most of the headlines during the election focusing on their historic loss of Hartlepool, in the North-East. 

This is nothing new. Recalling the 2004 elections, when Labour performed poorly nationwide; Sir Richard Leese, CBE, leader of Manchester City Council since 1996, states “electorally, we went against the national trend. We were one of only two major cities that maintained a Labour majority. We actually gained seats in that period of time rather than losing them.”

The level of dominance the Labour Party has on the City Council is overwhelming. Of its 96 members, only two councillors are not members of the Labour Party. 

Indeed, after this election, which saw the number of Liberal Democrat councillors reduced from 2 to just 1, there is no longer any official opposition within the council.

Cllr Leese credits this to the work Labour has done in the region, and their tackling of local issues. 

“We’ve developed the brand of Manchester Labour, and what it stands for,” Leese states. 

“We stand up for the city – even when we had a Labour government, if the government was doing things that we didn’t think was in Manchester’s interests we said so in no uncertain terms. We haven’t taken it for granted, and we’ve kept working at it.”

Critics from other Parties however have argued that it it’s not healthy for democracy for one party to have such dominance, and that often the deck is stacked far too strongly against smaller parties being represented at all. 

Rob Nunney, the new Green Party councillor for Woodhouse Park, is the first Green councillor Manchester has seen since 2008. While Labour are undeniably popular across the city, Nunney has argued that many elections results are warped by the voting system used in local elections.

Known as First Past the Post, this system – also used in general elections, means that seats are allocated on the basis of who wins in each individual ward, rather than in proportion with the overall votes cast throughout the area as a whole. 

As such, Nunney explains, smaller Parties have to concentrate much of their campaigning on those more marginal wards, rather than attempting to rival parties like Labour across the entirety of Greater Manchester.

“It’s such a shame,” Nunney states. “It disenfranchises so much of the population. They feel their votes don’t count in areas that aren’t marginal.”

This, he states, is why the Greens – along with most major parties besides Labour and the Conservatives, are campaigning for a voting system based along the lines of Proportional Representation, where numbers of seats are allocated in line with the overall balance of votes. 

While Labour would remain the biggest Party in the region, this kind of system would likely give much greater representation to smaller parties.

According to Chris Ogden, Co-Chair of the Manchester Greens, the figures from the most recent election would have given the Greens around 11 councillors under Proportional Representation, as opposed to just 1 under the current system.

This, he adds, doesn’t even take into consideration how people might vote differently under an alternate system, pointing out that the nature of FPTP often means people will vote tactically, rather than for who they really side with.

“The votes that we have are determined by First Past the Post,” Ogden states. “People are voting, or thinking in that kind of tactical way that First Past the Post pushes you into.” 

In all likelihood, he adds, their share of votes as well as seats would increase under Proportional Representation, since people would no longer be concerned that a vote for Greens would be wasted. 

Ogden compares the situation in this country with that in Germany, where the Greens have managed to overtake the Social Democratic Party. 

“I’d wager that the only reason that hasn’t happened in the UK, to the same extent, is because of First Past the Post, because it holds Labour in that position where they can’t fail, they’re too big to fail, but at the same time they’re too weak to succeed.” 

These kinds of estimates have been supported by others. Emma Knaggs, from the campaign group Make Votes Matter, asserts that Labour’s overwhelming popularity would mean that they’d remain the largest Party in Manchester overall. “About two thirds of people did vote for Labour – but then that still gives you a third to represent everyone else.”

This kind of disparity is even greater in other councils, she adds. She states how in Redditch, in the West Midlands, the Conservatives got just under half the vote, yet the council is almost entirely Conservative. 

Over the past few years, Make Votes Matters has worked with numerous different parties and organised grassroot campaigns to try and raise awareness and boost engagement on electoral reform.

“Sometimes it is hard to get across how big of an issue it is,” Knaggs says. “So many of the decisions made at government level on policies that affect healthcare and housing and education, and everybody’s lives, are largely affected by this.

“A lot of people feel that their vote is not represented at all. Democracy is degrading, and the UK’s satisfaction in democracy has gone down significantly in the last few years. And part of that is to do with the fact that people’s votes just are not going anywhere really.”

John Leech, the one remaining Liberal Democrat councillor for Manchester City, states that he’s personally experienced how harmful the current system can be for fostering democracy. 

He explains that the tiny number of opposition councillors means they were given virtually no resources or office space, and were deliberately withheld information on numerous occasions. 

He’d even received verbal abuse from some Labour councillors, on one occasion going before the standards committee over what an independent investigator described as “bullying.” 

“It’s that sort of One-Party State behaviour that goes on at Manchester Town Hall,” Leech says. “The leadership of the council are an appalling cabal that don’t even have the support of a lot of their backbench members. 

“But in Manchester Labour think they can get away with that, and they can. For anyone to suggest that having a council made up of 94 Labour councillors, 1 Liberal Democrat, and 1 Green councillor, is good for democracy or promotes good governance is just frankly barking mad.”

In spite of the criticisms of First Past the Post, the week since the elections has brought news that more elections are to be run using this system. 

The recent Mayoral elections used a supplementary system, allowing voters to give a second preference. 

But according to plans by the Conservative government this is to change, with future Mayoral elections, as well as for Police and Crime Commissioners, to be selected via First Past the Post.

While, according to Cllr Leech, this “won’t make a jot of difference in Manchester,” considering Burnham’s overwhelming popularity, he argues it has real potential to skew the results in other Mayoral contests. 

These concerns have also been echoed by Make Votes Matter. The plans “wouldn’t have made much  of a difference in Manchester because Andy Burnham got two thirds of the vote on the first preference,” Knaggs states. “But in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough for example, the result actually changed with the second preferences.

“Where I am in Bristol, on the last mayoral election, the candidate would have got through with just 27% of the vote. So it’s a case where someone is elected into a position which usually holds an awful lot of power, and a lot of budgetary responsibility, but only a really small proportion of the electorate has actually voted for them. 

“We really think it is a huge backward step in our democracy, because First Past the Post will really warp elections. It’s a really outmoded system.”

In response, Make Votes Matter have launched a petition against the government’s plans and, with the easing of lockdown, are now planning to be much more active in the next few months. “Hopefully by July we’ll be able to do some big demonstrations. We’re trying to mobilise our local groups, who are in quite a few of the major cities, including Manchester.”

Picture courtesy of Make Votes Matter

It seems likely therefore that, as lockdown eases, this is an issue that will only grow in prominence. With the groups Action Day set for July 17, and plans to get motions on reform presented at the Labour Party Conference in September, this may be a debate that’s only just begun.

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