In case we are under any illusions, the UK isn’t the only country that has suffered a democratic deficit when it comes to general elections!
Down under, over forty years ago, New Zealand’s famously fair public were ‘treated’ to the results of two consecutive general elections where a party coming second in the polls managed to gain a majority in Parliament.
Fought under their ‘virtually perfect example’ of a Westminster first-past-the-post (FPTP) system these elections did nothing to improve New Zealanders’ cynicism about their political representatives in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Luckily for them, the people managed to overcome the forces of conservatism and now have an electoral system that better represents the whole country, as we shall see as we follow New Zealand’s political pathway to proportional representation…
POLITICS WAS ‘PAKARU’ (BROKEN)
Only one third of the electorate trusted the government to ‘do what is right’ most of the time, with the rest believing the government was run in order to favour vested interests. Confidence in Parliament, already low at 33% in 1975, fell to single digits by 19881.
Reflecting this disillusionment, smaller parties such as the Social Credit Party (‘Socred’) and the New Zealand Party formed and began to take more and more votes from the big two, Labour and National. But under FPTP, of course, they were massively underrepresented and gained hardly any seats.
For example, in 1981, despite polling over 20% nationally, Socred gained just 2 seats, or 2% of the MPs.
As we know, FPTP favours the concentration of power into the hands of the winning party – whether they have won the popular vote or not. In New Zealand, this was exacerbated by the fact that parliament is mono-cameral: there is only one ‘house’ – the one that gets elected every three years. There is no second chamber, written constitution or other means to scrutinise and modify legislation as we do here. Former NZ PM Geoffrey Palmer has written about this in his book ‘Unbridled Power’.
In the UK, it is the Conservatives who are currently enjoying this power ‘feature’ of FPTP. In New Zealand in 1984, it was Labour who abandoned their ideological base and founding principles. Labour passed unpopular (to their base) social and economic policies straight from the Thatcher school that turned NZ from a highly regulated economy to one of the most deregulated countries in the World. Although these changes had some initial success for Labour – they won a second term in 1987 – a stock market crash and the subsequent socio-economic fallout led to much public unhappiness.
The National Party then used the public’s dislike for Labour’s neoliberalism in a cynical way. First they attacked the policy direction in order to get electoral advantage, then adopted those monetarist policies – indeed doubled down on them – when they achieved power! Such mendacity was facilitated by the two-party FPTP system.
But whilst these economic changes suited the interests of the NZ corporate elite, the voters decided that enough was enough. They wanted a change from the two-party system to one that better reflected their wishes.
Were they listened to? Well, the main parties at least pretended to heed that concern.
TE ARA – ‘the path’
Leading up to the 1984 election, Labour promised to review the electoral system and on winning power they set up a Royal Commission in 1985 to do so. Sadly, Labour did not promise to act on its recommendations, so any idea of change was kicked into the long grass.
However, sensing the public mood, wanting to put clear water between the policy positions of the big two and perhaps feeling cornered by an interviewer on national television a week before the 1987 election, PM David Lange made an off-the-cuff commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform if Labour won power. Although this was much to the surprise (and chagrin) of his PR-sceptic fellow Cabinet members, he nevertheless later put this commitment in writing.
It wasn’t enough, though. Internal divisions within his party ensured that the promise of electoral reform ended up like so many in New Zealand under FPTP – broken.
Sensing Labour’s troubles over the issue, mendacity again led PR-sceptic National Party Leader Jim Bolger to promise a referendum if elected in the run up to the 1990 election. But, credit where credit is due, this time the centre-right National party, perhaps traditionally the most opposed to electoral reform, became the unwitting heroes of our story and delivered.
Finally, the New Zealand public were going to be given a say on the matter.
This was to be done in two parts. First, in 1992, there was a non-binding ‘preferendum’ in which voters were asked a) whether they wanted to change the system and b) to state their preference on a range of voting options researched and presented by the Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC).
In this first plebiscite, despite bad faith actors misleading the public where they could, a large proportion of those who voted (70%), voted for a mixed member proportional (MMP) system, similar to that used in Germany. That this system was chosen – practically unheard of outside of Germany – was down to the hard work of the Royal Commission and the ERC in explaining to the public how this new system would benefit them.
A second referendum, to ratify the winning option of the first in a binding vote, or to reject PR altogether, was held concurrently with the 1993 general election.
Sensing their vested interests would disappear under the real democracy offered by PR, the anti-PR establishment mobilised, spending five times as many dollars to stop it as the ERC had to promote it. Support for MMP began to fall away as a result of this well-funded scare campaign.
One can only imagine what would have happened had Murdoch had a presence in New Zealand.
However, in this second referendum, New Zealanders voted to reject FPTP by a margin of 8% and from 1996 onwards, NZ governments would be voting under an MMP system of proportional representation.
A note about MMP in NZ: In this system, the existing constituencies were re-jigged and ‘thinned out’ from 99 to 60 or so. These ‘electorate’ constituencies still vote under FPTP rules as before. In addition, five or six electorates, superimposed on the entire country, will return Maori MPs from electorates of Maori descent.
However, to gain proportionality, the remaining 55 members of the 120 member chamber would be elected by means of a second ‘party vote’ on the ballot paper. If a party gains 5 percent or more of the Party Vote, members on a closed list supplied by that party would be chosen in proportion to the total party vote and used to top up the party’s share of seats accordingly.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
The first election held under PR was in1996. The PR-sceptic National Party, despite losing some support, managed to form a government after protracted negotiations with newer, smaller parties who managed to gain nearly a third of the MPs.
To the surprise and disappointment of their supporters, pro-PR New Zealand First, under the leadership of Winston Peters, were seduced into becoming coalition partners with National. This was to be an electoral disaster for New Zealand First who never again achieved the 17 seats they won in ’96.
The ’96 election and subsequent negotiations reveal a major difference between FPTP and PR – the need for more consensus. The new electoral environment does not reward strongly adversarial leaders – something National discovered in 1999.
Since PR was introduced, only once has a party won an outright majority – in 2020 when Labour won with a majority of four. All PR governments prior to this were formed by making alliances – often difficult ones involving a lot of deal-making and political gymnastics. Helen Clark, three-times Labour prime minister since PR, has somehow formed three very different alliances in order to retain power!
But this collegiate approach is catching, even when it isn’t necessary. Under Ardern’s leadership Labour didn’t show arrogance in last year’s outright victory – they formed a post electoral alliance with the Greens. This move went down very well with the public, in particular the youth.
THEY ARE US
So apart from righting the democratic wrongs of FPTP, what other benefits has PR brought to NZ?
Well, it is widely acknowledged that the New Zealand parliament ‘looks’ more like the NZ population. Prior to PR, Maori and other ethnic minorities made up less than 5% of the elected MPs. Now, Maori and the other main ethnic groups (Pasifika, Chinese etc) almost match their proportion in the population.
Female representation in parliament still falls just short of the national proportion, but at 48% is nearly six times more than the average of the FPTP years (though this had been steadily increasing since the 1980s).
And speaking of diversity, the list part of the electoral college has helped a few non-career politicians become part of the legislature. So ‘experts in their field’ and folk with real life experience in things that matter, but who hate the idea of campaigning, can become important, not just the usual lawyers and bankers who fill the ranks of our House of Commons.
Now, these are all significant changes. PR has enabled, or at least hugely accelerated, the transformation of parliament from a largely white male club with a tendency to self-serve to one that people can relate to and more easily become a part of. List MMP has provided the opportunity for private members bills to be presented that would have been unheard of under FPTP. Now everyone is represented, people can feel more engaged. Confidence in democracy increases.
COAT-TAILING AND WAKA JUMPING!
Of course, PR isn’t a panacea and hasn’t been all plain sailing. The MMP system in NZ has idiosyncrasies of its own that can cause problems.
Coat-tailing is a derogatory term used to describe how an MP can be elected in one of the electorates and by this virtue further list MPs are assigned to this party despite the party not achieving the critical mass of 5% of the national vote. Sometimes deals are done between large and small parties in order to ‘get them [the small party] over the line’ such as in the Epsom constituency in 2008.
Neither Rodney Hide, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers party (ACT) MP elected, nor the National candidate stood much chance of winning this seat. ACT are a rural, conservative, ’out in the wops’ party, but as they are natural bedfellows policy-wise with National, they cut a deal to keep out Labour.
And here’s the rub: having won an MP entitled ACT to use their national vote percentage – just 3.65% – to override the 5% threshold and bring in a proportionate number of MPs. ACT now have ten MPs.
Politicians jumping ship or being expelled by their party but still retaining the MPs salary and status is not unusual anywhere but “waka-jumping” was a problem in the early years of PR with the list MPs. So much so that a law requiring party-hoppers to vacate their seats was introduced in 2001. That law has now expired and so that seems to be much less of a problem now.
WASTED VOTES CAN STILL BE AN ISSUE
And there is the issue of ‘wasted votes’ too. This is a huge problem for FPTP of course (as we in the UK know only too well). In NZ, the issue of wasted votes in safe seats is dealt with by the list system. But the country’s sheer diversity has led to the creation of many small parties, all vying for a democratic say-so.
Most of them don’t achieve the 5%, so these votes go nowhere (unless there is a coat-tail opportunity). Is that a problem? Well, they can add up to quite a bit! In 2020, 15% of total votes cast went to below-threshold smaller parties. Labour’s official position is to reduce this to 4% and there have been calls to lower the threshold to 3%.
Alternatively, of course, bigger parties may adapt their appeal to become more inclusive to different interest groups and this appears to be the case because, perhaps counter-intuitively, the big two parties still attract the overwhelming number of votes of the public. At around 80%, this number has barely changed from the pre-FPTP years.
The transition to PR has not been without its other challenges. “Knitting together a solution to our problems where everybody has to be included is not always easy to live with”, “It has made us more diverse than we are comfortable with” and “it shoves politics in our faces” [ref] are examples of the rawness that can be felt outside the comfort zone of the old way.
But as the PR system matures and the country gets used to itself in the new political paradigm, New Zealand is showing the world how party democracy within a PR system can work for all.
Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Phil Saxby who has contributed much to this blog with suggestions and corrections. Phil was one of the founders of the cross-party Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC) in 1986, which campaigned successfully for MMP over the 7 years 1986-1993. He also campaigned for the adoption of Single Transferable Vote in local government elections, including two successful referendums on using STV for Wellington City Council elections. As a Labour member, Phil set out to make connections with all the various Labour groups to promote PR as a voting system fair to all parties and groups in society. The ERC campaigns reflected that inclusive approach.
Other references not hyperlinked in text:
- Vowles, J. 1995, The Politics of Electoral Reform in New Zealand, International Political Science Review vol16, no1, p 95-115
- Banducci, S. and Karp, J. 1999, Perceptions of fairness and support for proportional representation, Political Behavior, Vol. 21, No. 3
- Barker, F. McLeay, E. 2000, How Much Change? An Analysis of the Initial Impact of Proportional Representation on the New Zealand Parliamentary Party System, Party Politics, Sage.
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