A Liberal Democrat peer is to address the council where she forged her political career for first time in 22 years to urge it to better represent its population and be more “forward thinking and progressive”.
Baroness Harris of Richmond will issue the appeal to the first full meeting of Conservative-led North Yorkshire Council since the county council and seven district and borough councils were abolished on March 31 amid concerns for diminishing democratic representation.
While opposition councillors have condemned the subsequent cut in elected members representing North Yorkshire’s communities from 319 to 90, the authority’s leadership has pointed to savings for taxpayers and claimed councillors would still be able to respond to residents’ concerns.
When a notice of motion to introduce a proportional representation system of voting at elections was put before its executive in February, the council’s deputy leader, Councillor Gareth Dadd, described the move as “self-indulgent” and “political posturing”.
Councillor David Chance, executive member for corporate services, said although proportional representation could lead to more voices being heard, the electoral system could also see more unstable coalition governments.
Campaigners say analysis of the county council’s elections since 2005 – all run under the first past the post system – had revealed that on average UKIP needed 15,500 votes per councillor, the Green Party 6,900, Labour 4,500, Liberal Democrats 3,500 and the Conservatives just 1,900.
Baroness Harris said despite North Yorkshire Council’s stated belief in the importance of democracy it had appeared dismissive of calls for a more representative democratic system.
She said the introduction of proportional representation (PR) at elections would more accurately represent the views of different communities across England’s largest county.
Her call follows Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham calling for Labour to consider introducing PE, saying it would “have the effect of empowering places over the civil service and the machine because I think the way parliament currently works is that it doesn’t fully empower all parts of the country”.
The peer, who was a member of its predecessor council from 1981 to 2001 and became the first woman to chair the county council in 1991, said by supporting PR the authority could show itself as “forward thinking and progressive”.
When asked if she believed the authority’s Conservative leadership would ignore the arguments she would present, Baroness Harris said: “I hope not. What I am asking is for the council to have a serious a debate about it and hope that they too come to the conclusion that PR is a fairer and more just system.”
Baroness Harris will tell the meeting the fledgling authority has the opportunity to ditch the “archaic” first past the post system and bring fresher ideas into practice.
She will quote National Centre for Social Research figures which found 51 per cent of people are now in favour of introducing PR for Westminster elections, a sharp rise from 27 per cent in 2011.
While the council’s leadership has stated PR was a matter that Baroness Harris’ Westminster colleagues will decide, she will state: “After all, Yorkshire has often been at the forefront of new ideas and campaigns for many years.
“You have been told, I understand, that this is a minority idea – but I can absolutely assure you, it is most definitely not!”