Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand (NZ) Prime Minister, celebrated her Labour Party’s success in the recent elections, winning 61 of the 120 seats in the House of Representatives. This is the first single-party Government since the new system of proportional representation voting system replaced the first-past-the-post system in 1996. Before now, and since 1996, coalition Government has been the norm.
Ardern has been Prime Minster since 2015, and has become a celebrated figure internationally for her Government’s success in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, keeping nationwide infections down to 2000 and deaths down to 25. When a mistake was made with the NZ Government’s international arrivals quarantine system, and two infected people avoided quarantine, she acted swiftly to contain the resulting mini-outbreak and correct the system. She knocks spots off our own depressing apology for a PM.
How did she do it?
The change from First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting to Proportional Representation (PR) voting (called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP in NZ) took 20 years in coming. In 1978 a new party, Social Credit, won 16% of the national vote but only one seat, and in 1981 this increased to 21% and just 2 seats. In 1984 the NZ Party won 12% of the vote but no seats. In 1978 and 1981 the Labour Party won more votes than the National Party, but the National Party won more seats and formed the Government. Sounds familiar? In the 2019 UK election, the Liberal Democrats won 11.5% of the votes but only 11 seats (1.7%). The Green Party won 2.7% of the vote for just 1 MP. The Conservative Party won an 80 seat overall majority on the back of a 43.6% vote share, but a 56% share of the seats, on a turnout of 67%.
In 1984 the New Zealand Labour Government formed a Royal Commission which recommended a German-style Mixed Member Proportional System (MMP) known in the UK as the Additional Member System. Two referenda were held, in 1992 (advisory) and 1993 (binding), with the public choosing the recommended system. A third referendum, in 2011, conducted after elections using the new MMP system, confirmed the public’s continued preference for the new system.
Under MMP, voters still elect MPs for their local area, called electorates rather than constituencies, but they also have a second vote for a party to use too. It’s this party vote that helps make the parliament representative and proportional, so that the national division of seats reflects the national votes cast in the election. All the MPs that won electorates take their seats first, then, if parties need more MPs to get them up to the level of their party’s national vote share, the extra MPs come from the list of party candidates published before the election. There is a threshold of 5% of votes to prevent the Parliament containing lots of MPs from tiny parties. This is all similar to the voting systems used in London, Scotland and Wales.
In New Zealand, 64 seats come from electorate seats, 49 from party lists and seven from special Maori electorates.
Contrast this with the British system …
In Britain, since 1950, all general elections in all constituencies have been contested using the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, although the shortcomings have long been known about and debated.
Under FPTP, Parliament doesn’t properly (i.e. proportionately) represent public opinion, diversity is restricted, and distrust is bred. Voter turnout is depressed as a consequence. Major issues which the public feel strongly about don’t get fairly reflected in the results, and voters don’t feel part of the process when their votes are perceived to make no difference to the result. This is especially true in so-called safe seats, which foster cynicism towards the electoral process. In 2019 it was estimated by the Electoral Reform Society that 70% (22 million) votes made no difference to the outcome, because they were either cast for candidates who didn’t get elected or because they were cast for safe-seat candidates who didn’t need them.
The FPTP system encourages a concentration of efforts around a small number of marginal seats where the outcome is likely to be close. This in turn encourages tactical voting as voters choose candidates on the basis of trying to keep individual candidates out, thereby not voting for their first choice candidate. This distorts outcomes.
FPTP also encourages more artificial division and binary polarisation in society in general. There is the adversarial and partisan nature of the two-party system, the Government and Opposition benches in Parliament face each other, and you get constant unseemly and deeply unsatisfactory PMQs and debates in Parliament. Political point-scoring, and accusations and counter-accusations are encouraged, leading to obfuscation and diversion from the real dilemmas and hinder the search for workable solutions and consensus-building.
Attempts to change the British system
In 1997, the Labour Government appointed an Independent Commission on the Voting System under Roy Jenkins to study the matter and to make a recommendation. The recommendation they made in 1998 was for a system called Alternative Vote Plus (AV+). Each voter votes for their preferred candidate, and also indicates their preference order for the other candidates. If one candidate in a constituency obtains an overall majority of the first preference votes cast, he or she is automatically selected. If not, the bottom candidate in the list of candidates for that constituency is eliminated, and their votes are distributed to the remaining candidates in accordance with voter preferences. This process continues until one candidate does have an overall majority. The ‘+’ part was a separate vote for candidates from party lists, to ensure the national proportion of seats reflected the national proportion of votes.
The Labour Party were in Government for 13 years from 1997 to 2010, but they progressively lost momentum over that period for voting reform. It was left to the Liberal Democrat Party, in coalition with the Conservative Party, to push for a referendum on the voting system, which occurred in 2011. The question voters were asked was whether they wanted to change from a FPTP system to an AV system (without the ‘+’). Nick Clegg had called the proposed AV system ‘a miserable little compromise’ in 2010, but nevertheless campaigned for a Yes vote. The Conservative Party campaigned for a No vote, while the Labour Party was neutral. Many senior parliamentarians from both main parties campaigned for the No campaign, which was accused of a number of false statements.
David Cameron argued that FPTP delivers more accountability, and claimed it reduces the number of hung parliaments. He insisted that “when it comes to our democracy, Britain shouldn’t have to settle for anyone’s second choice.”. He also claimed, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 3 May 2011, that AV would undermine the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote”.
Caroline Lucas, Green Party, said in support of AV that “they can vote for what they believe in and I think that will be very liberating for a lot of people”.
The outcome of the referendum was a No vote success with 68% of the vote on a turnout of 42%.
So where is UK now?
Back to the present, and the negative pressures on the quality and reliability of UK democracy in many respects have significantly increased since 2015. The Brexit referendum allowed largely unregulated abuse, fraud, lies, fake news and malign foreign intervention to thrive, distorting the result. In the two elections since then, particularly in 2019, lies were told, undeliverable promises made, and campaigning via social media was completely unregulated.
As Stephen Kinnock MP, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform in 2019 said, “The fall-out from the 2016 referendum has exposed the fact that our democracy is in danger of being overwhelmed by a toxic combination of dodgy data and dirty money. Drip by drip we have seen how our legislative and regulatory frameworks are simply not fit for purpose.”
He continued: “Our political system can only function effectively if the public is confident that our elections and referenda are being policed effectively and that the playing field is level. Yet we currently have analogue regulations governing a digital age.”
The UK voting system is a crucial element in helping to re-establish trust in elections and in the legitimacy of Government. Sir Kier Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, has said that he is in favour of electoral reform. The Conservative Party are most unlikely to try reforming the current FPTP system from which they derive great electoral benefit, but have other plans in their 2019 Manifesto for Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary reforms. These are most likely to reduce the quality of UK democracy but yield electoral and political benefits for the current Conservative Government.
New Zealand has shown that the voting system can be successfully changed for the better. The Scandinavian countries use forms of Proportional Representation, and they too have Governments which are much more accepted and trusted and of better quality than our current UK Government. It is a matter of urgency now for the UK to catch up. It will be up to the Labour Party to do it.
Ed: Information from the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter and Wikipedia.