Millions of voters will be forced to choose between just two political parties in next week’s local elections despite plummeting support for the Conservatives and Labour, new analysis shows.
More than 2.6m potential voters in 816 council seats across England will face a choice between just two candidates despite nearly half (40%) of the public supporting parties that are not the “big two”, up from 20% in December, according to YouGov polls.
Nearly half of the two-way contests - 56% - will see the Tories and Labour battle it out without any challenge, while a further 20% are Tory-Liberal Democrat battles.
But it comes with the Tories and Labour losing support amid deep splits over Brexit.
New parties such as Change UK and the Brexit Party are also emerging to tap into disaffected voters, although they will not be fighting the May 2 polls.
The Electoral Reform Society (ERS), which carried out the study, blamed England’s “outdated” and “broken” first past the post election system for making large areas of the country unwinnable for many parties, leaving voters with a “scandalous denial of choice”.
It called for the introduction of proportional representation, a system used in Scotland since 2007 and in European elections, in which smaller and new parties are expected to win seats later next month.
ERS chief executive Darren Hughes said: “At a time when people want to ‘shop around’ more than ever, millions of voters are stuck in two-party seats with just a couple of candidates to choose from.
“A competition of ideas is vital for a healthy democracy, but in the winner-takes-all-politics of first past the post, even well-supported parties often don’t stand a chance.
“Recent polling shows huge numbers of voters no longer back the two main parties. Yet voters in more than 800 seats in England are locked in the binary party system of a hundred years ago. This is ‘to me, to you’ politics, with big parties often swapping control.
“No areas should be viewed as ‘electoral wastelands’ or ‘unwinnable’ by parties – but that is the sad reality under England’s broken voting system.”
The party system is fragmenting but the structures of England’s politics remain locked in the 19th Century
Around England, the East Midlands has the highest number of seats (150) contested by just two candidates, followed by the West Midlands and North West
But more voters (475,000) are affected in the West Midlands than anywhere else.
The North West meanwhile has the highest percentage of wards which feature battles between the two main parties, with 86% of the region’s two-way contests pitting the Tories against Labour.
The South West meanwhile has the smallest percentage of Tory-Labour battles because the majority of two-way contests are between the Tories and Lib Dems.
Hughes said: “These findings show the urgency of the need for real political reform: the party system is fragmenting but the structures of England’s politics remain locked in the 19th Century.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. Scotland and Ireland use proportional voting systems to elect their councillors, with voters consistently often a wide choice of parties. Now is the time to move to a truly representative, participatory politics, where every vote counts and people know their voice will be heard – wherever they are.”
Many of the Thursday May 2 elections in 8,000 council seats are in the Conservatives’ traditional rural and district heartlands.
The party fears a potential wipeout as a result of Theresa May’s failure to deliver Brexit on time.
Of the seats up for election, the Tories have 4,628 councillors, Labour 2,069 and the Lib Dems 641.
When the wards were last voted on, the same day as the general election in 2015, turnout was above 70%, as David Cameron clinched a wider victory to return to Downing Street.
Back then, the Conservatives gained 504 councillors, with Labour losing 238, the Lib Dems losing 425 and Ukip gaining 112.