Islington Labour rejects Green calls for proportional representation at local elections

Disagreement: Council Leader Richard Watts (left) and Cllr Caroline Russell. Photographs: Islington Council and the Green Party

Islington Labour councillors have rebuffed Green attempts to push for proportional representation at council elections, arguing that questions about how the local election system functions are “the Government’s responsibility.”

At the full council meeting on 5 July, sole opposition Cllr Caroline Russell (Green) tabled a motion calling the council to support both proportional representation and the retention of voting rights for EU citizens.

However, Islington Labour councillors tore up the motion by removing any mention of proportional representation in the amended version that was passed.

The original motion called for the council to write to Islington MPs Emily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn to ask them to support proportional representation at council elections and the retention of voting rights for EU citizens.

It also called on council to contact Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire to ask for a review of the First Past the Post voting system for local council elections.

The original motion noted that a Labour report published last year lays out many the party’s concerns with the First Past the Post voting system.

“First Past the Post elects governments and councils that don’t match the votes cast and creates safe seats that discourage political engagement,” it reads.

Last year Labour received 61 per cent of the votes in May’s local elections, winning 98 per cent (47) of the seats. The Greens received 16 per cent of the votes, winning 2 per cent (one) of the seats.

But the amended version of the motion, tabled by council leader Cllr Richard Watts, did not include any mention of proportional representation.

Instead, it called on the council to write to Prime Minister Theresa May to guarantee the rights of EU citizens to vote and stand in local elections, as well as to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government “to ask what plans the government has to increase participation at local elections”.

Speaking two weeks after the council meeting when she tabled the motion, Cllr Russell, said: “Such a huge super-majority on the council has left Labour a bit complacent and often unable to listen.”

“We need a diversity of voice to hold the council to account. The current voting system does not encourage people to get engaged with local politics or see it as meaningful.”

Cllr Russell said that at the council meeting she appealed to back-bench Labour councillors to speak about the amended motion, but no one responded.

“This is the kind of level of debate you can expect from a super-whipped majority council,” she said.

“Proportional representation at council elections means political parties would actually have to work together constructively.”

Cllr Russell also pointed out that “Labour could have benefited from proportional representation in 2006”.

In that year, the Liberal Democrats retained control of the council despite winning only 33.1 per cent of the votes, whilst Labour won 34.9 per cent of the votes.

In response to a question about why he amended Cllr Russell’s original motion, council leader Cllr Richard Watts said: “Islington Labour once again received the overwhelming support of local people at the local elections. 61 per cent of people backed our bold plans to make Islington a fairer place for all and I am very proud that Islington Labour was the only borough-wide party to increase its share of the vote.

“The substantive motion that was passed at Full Council rightly condemned the Government’s trial of requiring voters to present photo ID in order to be able to vote – this was not mentioned in the original motion.

“We recognise differing views about voting systems, but the Council has no power over which system is used and it is the Government’s responsibility to answer questions about how the election system can contribute to increasing participation at elections.

The council leader also drew a comparison between Cllr Russell’s motion and the two motions that Islington Labour put forward at the meeting calling for parity of esteem between mental and physical health services in the NHS and an end to indefinite detention.

Cllr Watts described the Labour motions as “two very serious issues that matter to local people”.

He added: “I think the choice of topics for motions by the two political parties at the first Full Council meeting since the election speaks volumes about which party is committed to making a difference to local people on the issues that matter to them.”