When Michael Heseltine, as Secretary of State for the Environment, set out the terms of reference of the Local Government Commission for England there was no mention of electoral reform. The Commission was charged with making local government more accountable but it was not allowed to consider the part played by the electoral system itself in frustrating accountability. This is not altogether surprising, of course, since the Conservative party at the time was a prime beneficiary of Britain’s use of ‘first past the post’. In the 1992 general election, for example, the party won 54 per cent of the seats with 43 per cent of the vote. A month later Conservative candidates polled 45 per cent in the shire district elections and received 51 per cent of seats. Looked at through Conservative eyes the electoral system was not broken so there appeared to be no need to fix it. Neither was the Labour party about to shout from the rooftops about the perverse way in which local votes were translated into council representation. In those same 1992 local elections Labour won 54 per cent of seats in the metropolitan boroughs with just 39 per cent of the vote. As we noted in an earlier chapter the Liberal Democrats, although campaigning for reform of the electoral system, have learnt to work within its constraints. By targeting winnable seats and leaving the remainder either uncontested or with little more than ‘paper’ candidates, the party has steadily reduced the disadvantage usually suffered by third parties under our electoral system.
None of this, of course, removes the inequities which do exist and which arguably should have been part of the brief given to the Local Government Commission. An important aim in this chapter is to highlight the extent of the bias produced by the ‘first past the post’ system. In the first section, therefore, we will produce some of the more glaring examples of the inequality between votes and seats. Lest we be accused of exaggerating this bias we provide, in the second section, a broader analysis which looks in detail at an entire category of local authority, the county councils, responsible for the bulk of expenditure in the shires. In a third section some other electoral systems will be considered in terms of their applicability to British local government.