Elections to Rural Dorset Council 2019

“Local Government Minister, Sajid Javid, announced today [Monday 26th Feb 2018] that he will progress his initial ‘minded to’ decision to create two new unitary authorities in the county, replacing the existing nine councils.

Each authority will deliver all local government services in their respective areas. One will cover Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, and the other [“Rural Dorset] will serve the rest of the county. Subject to legislation, the new councils will come into existence in April 2019.” https://new.poole.gov.uk/news/government-approves-unitary-councils-for-dorset/

Christchurch is still unhappy and there is talk of a legal challenge. However the legislation referred to appears to be secondary legislation and is likely to pass.

The motivation of the change is of course to save money, making the provision of services more affordable. Many people feel however that democracy will suffer; local opinion will not be listened to; whilst most areas in Dorset have town or parish councils, Weymouth has neither

Assuming the change goes ahead, elections to the new Rural Dorset Council will have to take place next year. That is a pretty tight timescale. As has been suggested to me there will be no time to alter boundaries. The existing county divisions will have to become the new council electoral divisions. The website ‘Future Dorset’ suggests that the new council will have about 75 seats. If all existing single seat divisions become two seat divisions and all existing two seat divisions become three seat divisions (omitting Christchurch) that makes 76 seats – close enough surely.

It seems clear to me that the tri council partnership of West Dorset District Council, Weymouth and Portland District Council and North Dorset District Council will have to be absorbed into the new council and take responsibility for the remaining two districts, East Dorset and Purbeck.

Does the new council come into existence before or after elections to it? Whatever the answer to that, it seems clear that the extra councillors have to be elected pretty quickly. There are a number of options:

Option 1: County councillors elected in 2017 will stay on as Rural Dorset councillors until 2021, the extra councillors being elected in 2019. Thereafter there will be elections every two years. I do not believe this will suit the ‘powers that be’.

Option 2: ‘All out’ elections conducted under first past the post. Used in multi seat divisions this involves the messy process of recognising the block votes, outsorting the cross votes and separately recording each X on separate forms. The fact that this is doable illustrates the fact that there are relatively few cross votes. If a popular and effective councillor of a party gets elected, the chances are that other less worthy members of his or her party will also be elected. However the continued use of first past the post exacerbates the inevitable democratic deficit attendant on the move to unitary councils. The existence of the lower level councils moderated the one party dominance in the County Council. The Conservative Party has been over-represented and although the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have been fairly represented, Labour and UKIP have been grossly under-represented. This is surely undesirable in a low income, high property price area.

Option 3: ‘All out’ elections conducted under Single Transferable Vote (STV): We have a situation where (as illustrated by Brexit) both major parties have been split on vital issues. The doughty campaigner for voting reform, the late Enid Lakeman writes,

“… It is true that voters, especially in the big towns, do use a local election as an opportunity to express their opinion of the national parties – particularly of an unpopular government – but this does not mean that they would not welcome an opportunity to express also their views on which candidates would make the most competent councillors, which have the best ideas about housing, schools, traffic problems or whatever…”

In the late 1970s she carried out an exit poll in her home town of Tunbridge Wells in conjunction with a local election in a three seater ward. In the actual election three Conservatives were elected, the votes for the three candidates being pretty close. However in the exit poll voters were invited vote by STV, i.e. to place the candiadates in order of preference. In this poll the least popular Conservative candidate attracted less than 20% as many first preferences as the most popular. In consequence only two Conservatives were elected and one Liberal. A Labour candidate was close to being elected.

If politicians care at all for democracy they should take note and consider this option.

Hand counting of STV elections is very time consuming, but the Scots have adopted computer counting successfully for local elections. Votes are cast on specially printed paper ballot papers, which are then machine read and interpreted by freely available OCR software. The count is then performed using the eSTV software which is also used by Electoral Reform Services Ltd. The procedure used in 2007 was set out in Scottish Statutory Instrument 2007 No. 42, “Representation of the People: The Scottish Local Government Elections Order 2007”. The procedure was revised somewhat in the Scottish Local Government Elections Order 2011. In a note dated February 2012, Dr James Gilmour who was advising the Scottish Government wrote a “Detailed Description of an STV Count in accordance with the Rules in the Scottish Local Government Elections Order 2011”. This includes a worked example of an election in a three seater ward. I have a copy of this.

Option 3a: adopt the Scottish procedure in every detail: I believe this is technically possible given the support of the Election Services Manager for the tri council partnership with assistance from her counterparts in East Dorset and Purbeck. Political support may be the obstacle.

Option 3b: Online voting: Electoral Reform Services run on line elections for many organisations. The challenge is dealing with the minority who choose to vote on paper by post. A possible option for the future.

David Smith, Make Votes Matter in Dorset, 28 February 2018