UNISONScotland www
This is our archive website that is no longer being updated.
For the new website please go to
Click here
Home News About us Join Us Contacts Help Resources Learning Links UNISON UK



Proportional Representation

(Local Government Elections) (Scotland) Bill

UNISON Scotland's response to the Scottish Parliament Local Government Committee's Call for Evidence on The Proportional Representation (Local Government Elections) (Scotland) Bill.

November 2002


UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 145,000 members working in the public sector. We are the largest trade union in local government, with over 98,000 members working in Scottish Local Government. UNISON welcomes the opportunity to comment on the proposed Proportional Representation Bill, particularly since it covers issues of great concern to our members not only in their professional lives but as citizens too.

This paper constitutes UNISON Scotland's response to the Scottish Parliament Local Government Committee's call for evidence on the Proportional Representation (Local Government Elections) (Scotland) Bill.


The Existing System of Local Government Elections

UNISON Scotland believes that the current electoral system for local government elections is unsatisfactory.

Under the present First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system it is common for the winning candidates to be elected with support from less than half of those who voted. We believe that this does little for the spirit of democracy, and reduces the legitimacy of those elected. For example, in the 1999 council elections nearly half of Glasgow's 79 councillors were elected with only minority support.

It is also the case that the results in the wards do not add up to give each party a fair share of seats within a council. This is true for all political parties. For example:

  • Labour in Midlothian Council secured 94% of the seats with only 46% of the vote, whereas the SNP achieved a vote of 31% but no seats.
  • In Angus the SNP acquired 72% of council seats on a vote of 47%, whilst Labour polled 18% of the vote and only secured 3 seats.
  • The Liberal Democrats in East Dunbartonshire Council won 42% of seats on a vote of 27%.
  • The Conservatives in Stirling Council achieved 41% of the seats also on a vote of 27%.

The skewed relationship between votes cast and seats won means that councils are often dominated by one party that has secured only a minority of the votes. In the 1999 elections this happened in 12 of the 32 Scottish Councils. As the Kerley Report concludes, UNISON believes that this type of dominance by one party - without a majority of votes - creates fatalism and disillusionment on the part of voters and complacency on the part of the winning party. UNISON Scotland agrees with the Kerley Report that this is bad for democracy.

Fatalism and disillusionment with the current voting system are arguably a cause of poor turnout at local elections, as many votes do not count in the FPTP system. The last Scottish local government elections were held on the same day as the inaugural Scottish Parliament elections which did result in a turnout of 59.4%. However, previous local election turnout was poorer:

Turnout in Scottish Local Elections






Unitary Local Authority



Unitary Local Authority



Regional Council



District Council

(source: LGC)

We also believe that the dominance by one party in a council is not good for local democracy or local decision making. Decision making should be open to scrutiny, but the disproportionate distribution of seats in some authorities does not allow opposition parties or councillors to effectively scrutinise and contribute to the policy making process.

The perception of staff within councils which remain under the control of one political party, is that they are less open to employees, and less prepared to work with staff and unions in partnership approaches. Our experience of councils which are made up of a coalition, or where power does change hands, is that the authority is more prepared to listen to staff and enter into constructive dialogue.

The Current Bill's Proposals

The Proportional Representation (Local Government Elections) (Scotland) Bill implements the recommendations of the Kerley Committee. UNISON Scotland supports the recommendations made in the Kerley Report and we believe that the implementation of the proposals set out in the report would improve representation, enhance democracy and help to revitalise local government.

We agree with the Kerley Report that a reformed system of electing local councillors should focus on proportionality and fairness, and should retain the link between councillor and his/her ward.

We also believe that independent candidates should have a fair chance in elections, and that the electoral system should allow for the geographical diversity of Scotland, taking into account urban conurbation, rural and remote areas. In addition the electoral system should enable council wards to match natural communities. It is important that every vote should count and that local government should be seen to be responsive, transparent and democratic.

UNISON Scotland notes the rationale in the Kerley Report, which concludes that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system best fits this criteria. We support the implementation of the Kerley recommendations and believe that this system should be introduced for local government elections.

The Single Transferable Vote Electoral System

For local government elections UNISON Scotland believes that proportional representation (PR), and the STV in particular, produces a result which more fairly represents the spectrum of opinion within the electorate. It is worthy of note that the UK is the only European Union member state not to use a system of PR for local government elections. STV is used in a variety of public elections in Australia, Ireland, and in Northern Ireland.

UNISON believes that it is fundamental to UK elections that those councillors elected represent a specified group of people. The STV system allows for multimember wards, and the Kerley Report recommends wards of 3-5 councillors. Where several councillors represent each ward there is a better chance that the councillors will also represent a spectrum of opinion, and that constituents will feel comfortable about contacting at least one of them. Therefore, it can be argued that multi-member wards improve the representation of individual constituents.

STV allows for ward sizes to be varied to suit the needs of both sparsely populated rural areas and the densely populated urban areas. As noted above Kerley allows for wards of 3-5 members on average, but where appropriate will have wards of just 2 members. Given Scotland's diversity between the populous central belt, and the sparser Borders, and Highlands and Islands, STV offers appropriate representation to all communities.

The STV proportional system should also address the poor representation of a number of groups within local authorities, such as women, minority ethnic, and young people. In multi-member wards political parties will have to field a team of candidates, and UNISON believes that parties should be strongly encouraged to ensure gender balance and support the candidature of minority ethnic and young candidates.

The use of a proportional electoral system for the Scottish Parliament has increased the representation of women, however, it has to be noted that this was achieved principally by the Labour Party (following pressure from the trade union movement) implementing the "twinning system". Given that Westminster recently passed the Sex Discrimination (Electoral Candidates) Act 2002, UNISON Scotland believes that political parties have no reason not to address the under representation of women as elected representatives.

Importantly with STV, it is the voter who chooses which candidate to vote for, rather than political parties determining the ranking of their own particular candidates on a ballot paper.

Under the STV system maximum use is made of all votes cast. Unlike FPTP, where many people may feel that their votes are wasted where one party dominates in a given area, surplus votes are transferred to second preferences where one candidate has more than the minimum number of votes to be elected, and where candidates with the least support are excluded. This makes the maximum use of voters' preferences, involving more voters and avoids voter disillusionment and fatalism. This makes for better administrations, where people feel their views have been represented.

Proportional Representation will ensure that each party, together with independents, will be represented on each council in fair proportion to the share of votes received. This should end the council domination by single parties with minority support, and ensure that all council decisions are adequately discussed and scrutinised by all councillors. UNISON Scotland believes that a system which is based on proportionality will create better government, be more open to council employees, and offer more partnership working opportunities between employer, unions and staff.

Opponents of PR tend to argue that it results in power sharing administrations, dilutes a particular party's manifesto commitments, and gives third parties undue influence. However, UNISON Scotland disagrees that this is a disadvantage of PR. The experience of the Scottish Parliament, elected under a system of PR illustrates that this system of election can produce good governance, promote social justice, and enhance scrutiny of decision-making. The electoral system allows for fair representation of independents, and their contribution has enabled other legislation to be placed on the statute books, such as the abolition of poindings and warrant sales.

UNISON believes that PR for local government elections would improve decision making in councils. PR could help to develop a more consensual style of politics where elected representatives truly consider the interests of the community they represent, rather than political point scoring. A system based on STV would also help to engage more people - including greater numbers of women, ethnic minorities and young people - making a more representative system.

Raising Awareness of Election Processes

UNISON strongly believes that any changes to the electoral system must be followed up with public awareness initiatives. It is important that people understand how the proposed system will work, how to cast their vote and the processes for counting votes to elect councillors under STV. There is a need for a voter education programme on local government and the election system to be used - which is directed at the electorate. In addition UNISON believes that we need to raise awareness on local government and electoral processes through citizenship initiatives in schools and colleges to target children and young people.

Consultative Process of the Bill

There has been substantial consultation on the electoral system for local government in Scotland. Prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the McIntosh Commission reported on the need to reform local government, proposing systems of PR for elections. The Kerley Committee was set up by the Scottish Executive charged with building on the recommendations of McIntosh, and produced its "Report of the Renewing Local Democracy Working Group" in June 2000. The proposed Bill transposes the Kerley recommendations on STV into legislation.

However, UNISON believes that it is still essential that this Bill is subject to the Scottish Parliament's rigorous consultative processes, with a wide consultation process incorporating all interested parties.


For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary

14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX
Tel 0141-332 0006 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

top of page

Responses Index . Home