local democracy

New research: one-party councils could be wasting £2.6bn a year

4th October 2015
4 Oct 2015
local democracy
local government


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07979 696 265

Councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6bn a year through their procurement processes, according to a new report for the Electoral Reform Society.

The study, titled ‘The Cost of One-Party Councils’, measures the price savings achieved by English councils with ‘weak electoral accountability’ - i.e. those councils dominated by a single party or with a significant number of uncontested seats - and compares these with competitive councils. It finds that ‘one-party councils’ [1] could be missing out on savings of around £2.6bn when compared to their more competitive counterparts [2].

The report also measures councils’ procurement process against a ‘Corruption Risk Index’ [3], and finds that one-party councils are around 50% more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils.

One-party councils come about because of the distorting effects of First Past the Post in local elections. Responding to the new findings, the Electoral Reform Society is renewing its call for England and Wales to adopt the Scottish system (the Single Transferable Vote) for electing local councils. This system has been shown to end the phenomena of one-party councils and uncontested seats [4], and could therefore result in significant public savings by increasing levels of scrutiny and lowering councils’ risk of corruption.

Key findings:

  • One-party councils could be wasting up to £2.6bn a year through procurement compared to their more politically competitive counterparts – amounting to 5.9% of their £45bn annual spend
  • One-party councils typically achieve lower price savings [5] in procurement – 2.2% compared to 6.2% achieved by competitive councils
  • One-party councils have on average 50% higher ‘risk of corruption’ compared to competitive councils
  • The corruption risk of competitive councils compared to those dominated by one party is similar to the average Swedish municipality compared to the average Estonian municipality

The research, by University of Cambridge academic Mihály Fazekas for the ERS, examines over 132,000 public procurement contracts between 2009 and 2013 to identify ‘red flags’ for corruption, such as where only a single bid is submitted or there is a shortened length of time between advertising the bid and the submission deadline. These are brought together in a Corruption Risk Index to give a measure of councils’ risk of corruption in public procurement. Further evidence of the link between weak electoral accountability and higher corruption risk is supplied by a comparison of average price savings in procurement.

The study is the first to use ‘big data’ to analyse the potential for local councils to waste money in procurement owing to a lack of scrutiny or accountability (see Notes for further detail on methodology).

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“When single parties have almost complete control of councils, scrutiny and accountability tend to suffer. It’s not true of all one-party councils, but it’s bound to be true of some – and this new research suggests that lack of scrutiny could be costing us dear.

“The fact that tax-payers in England could be losing out on £2.6bn a year in potential savings is a damning indictment of an electoral system that gives huge artificial majorities to parties and undermines scrutiny. This kind of waste would be unjustifiable at the best of times, let alone during a period of austerity.

“The risk of corruption at the local level should set off alarm bells in Whitehall. The public are getting a poor deal through our voting system. For many millions of people, their vote effectively doesn’t count – and now we are seeing the potential financial cost of that, as well as the democratic cost.

“First Past the Post is clearly unfit for purpose, with parties able to win the vast majority of seats often on a minority of the vote. A fairer system, such as the one used in Scotland for local elections, would make ‘one-party states’ a thing of the past. And by letting the sunlight in, a fairer voting system could lead to substantial savings for the taxpayer.

“It’s time politicians from all parties woke up to the need for a fairer voting system. First Past the Post is hurting our democracy, and now it looks like it’s hurting us in the pocket too.”


The report is being launched at Conservative Party conference (Exchange 10, Manchester Central) at 12:45pm on Sunday 4th October.

Speakers at the launch event include Jonathan Isaby (Chief Executive, Taxpayers’ Alliance), Jacqui McKinlay (Executive Director, Centre for Public Scrutiny) and Sean Ansstee (Conservative Councillor and Leader of Trafford Borough Council.

For more information, quotes or to arrange interviews, contact Will Brett (will.brett@electoral-reform.org.uk / 07979 696 265)


View an embargoed version of the full study here: http://electoral-reform.org.uk/sites/default/files/THE%20COST%20OF%20ONE...

Findings are only reported for English councils outside of London as London boroughs represent a special case on their own, due to the two-tier government structure and London’s special economic position within England.


[1] One-party councils: those with ‘weak electoral accountability’, where at least 10% of the local council seats were only contested by one party/candidate in the last elections, or where one party controlled upwards of two-thirds of the council seats between 2006 and 2015, or both.

[2] Competitive councils: those councils which do not fall into the above category.

[3] Corruption Risk Index: an indicator representing the probability of corrupt contract award and delivery in public procurement. This is based on six red flags:

1.       Only a single bid is submitted
2.       No publication of call for tenders in official public procurement journal
3.       Using less open procedures such as invitation tenders
4.       Period between advertising a tender and submission deadline is too short
5.       Subjective, hard-to-quantify evaluation criteria
6.       Time given for decision is excessively short or lengthy

[4] [4] See our analysis here: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/the-best-of-the-worst-of-2011s-l...

[5] Price savings: In order to gather further evidence of the link between weak electoral accountability and higher corruption risks in local government contracting, councils’ average price savings were compared. Price savings are calculated using the ratio of originally estimated contract value and final contract value, with higher savings indicating that the final contract value went below the original estimate – most likely due to healthy competition among bidders.

Towards One Nation: the Labour case for local electoral reform

30th January 2014
30 Jan 2014
local democracy
fair franchise


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07979 696 265

Labour should embrace a fairer voting system for local elections if it wants to live up to its ‘One Nation’ ambitions, according to a new report by the Electoral Reform Society.

The report, Towards One Nation, shows that introducing the ‘Scottish system’[1] for local elections would put Labour on the map across the country – especially in the ‘electoral deserts’ of the South – and ensure Labour voters get their fair share of Labour councillors.

Local electoral reform:

· Would put Labour councillors in 27 of the 69 local authorities which were ‘Labour-free’ in 2011
· Would strengthen, rather than weaken, Labour’s super-majorities in urban areas
· Has seen Labour retain power in Scotland since its introduction in 2007, despite the Scottish National Party’s improved performance in recent years. Labour is now in government in four more Scottish councils than it was in 1999.

Towards One Nation demonstrates how local electoral reform is both good for voters (it gives Labour voters in the party’s weaker regions, such as rural areas and the south of England, genuine representation) and good for the party (by making campaigning worthwhile in every part of the country).

The table below shows ten examples of how Labour would benefit from proportional representation in local elections in the south of England.

Fig.1 Ten southern English councils and the effect of local electoral reform


Last election

2012 Seats

Seats under PR[2]

Bracknell Forest




Castle Point




East Hertfordshire
















North Norfolk








Tunbridge Wells




Windsor and Maidenhead





See a graphic representation of this table

Phil Collins, columnist for The Times, writes in a foreword to the report:

The 69 district and unitary councils which had no Labour representation at all in 2011 is chastening. Some of these are the contemporary equivalents of the rotten borough… Starting with Keir Hardie himself, electoral reform has always had its Labour supporters but it has never been a majority pursuit in a party which benefited from an unfair system. It is time it was. It is good for the health of the Labour party and it is good for the health of politics more widely.”

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“For all its ambition to represent people from across the country, Labour is practically non-existent in parts of the south of England and rural areas. Thousands of people vote Labour in these places, yet simply don’t get the representation they deserve.

“This isn’t just a problem for Labour – it’s a problem for the health of our democracy. Over a quarter of the electorate in Castle Point, Essex, voted Labour in 2012, yet this didn’t yield a single councillor. That makes a mockery of the idea of democratic representation. ‘No-go’ areas for parties have no place in a modern democracy.

“Local electoral reform would allow Labour to represent its voters in the south of England, giving the party a crucial toehold in areas where they need to rebuild their activist base. Labour has made much of being a One Nation party and renewing its structures to reach out to a wider pool of supporters and voters. Local electoral reform would help the party do exactly that.”

Andrew Burns, Labour leader of Edinburgh City Council, said:

“Labour in Scotland are doing as well in terms of leaders and better in terms of influence than they ever did under the old non-PR system. The labour councillors who were so heavily concentrated in certain parts of the country are now spread more thinly but more widely across the whole country, doing away with ‘them and us‘ areas and creating a real ‘One Nation’ Labour party. If Ed Miliband is to address the English north-south divide in terms of representation then introducing the Scottish system for local elections would be an important step.”


For more information contact Will Brett at 07979 696 265 / will.brett@electoral-reform.org.uk

Read the full report here: /sites/default/files/Towards_One_Nation_ 29Jan2014Final.pdf


1. Scotland’s local elections are conducted under the Single Transferable Vote. For more about this voting system visit ?PageID=483

2. Based on proportion of the vote at the last local election

[1] Scotland’s local elections are conducted under the Single Transferable Vote. For more about this voting system visit ?PageID=483

[2] Based on proportion of the vote at the last local election