Friday, May 13, 2005



Assessing the impact of MMP

With the UK election demonstrating for all to see the unfairness of their first-past-the-post electoral system - Labour won 55% of the seats on just 36% of the vote, while the LibDems got less than 10% of the seats on 22% of the vote - the pressure for electoral reform is mounting. The Independent has delivered a powerful series of articles on FPP's failings and the way things work in other countries. Today, Jack Straw raises his voice on behalf of those who benefit from the current unequal arrangements. But it all seems rather familiar. Proportional representation will result in small parties exercising disproportionate power, and governments being paralysed and unable to make "tough" (grossly unpopular) decisions if they have to consult other parties or build a coalition to pass legislation. FPP allows voters to hold MPs directly accountable, and allows the winning party's manifesto to be a "contract" between them and the voters. Here in New Zealand, we heard all this over a decade ago...

Straw attacks proportional systems on the basis that they lead to "unstable minority governments where small third and fourth parties often dictate terms". But this is very much a function of political culture. And I'd argue that, given the similarity of our political cultures, people wanting to assess the possible impact of proportional representation on the UK should look at New Zealand, rather than Italy.

So, how has proportional representation worked out here then? Fairly well, IMHO. We've had three elections under our mixed-member proportional system. None has produced a majority government, and in fact in 2002 voters punished the leading party when it seemed that they would gain an outright majority (the British electorate might feel differently; that's up to them). In one election - the first - we did have the sort of case Straw talks about - a smaller party holding the balance of power, using its influence to "wag the dog". But the general consensus is that this was due to that party's opportunistic leader, rather than the system that elected him, and there is a strong desire not to let him do it again. The problem has not recurred in subsequent elections, and coalition formation has been relatively painless.

Rather than having unstable governments, New Zealand seems to have unstable parties. On two occasions, the government's smaller coalition partner has disintegrated under the pressures of coalition. This has not led to new elections - the government has been able to cobble together a majority for confidence and supply - but it has led to smaller parties being fearful of entering formal coalition (which has limited their power and influence somewhat). Because of this, the most recent election saw the government conclude a looser arrangement, with the small United Future party providing confidence and supply, and granting support for legislation on a case-by-case basis. This has worked rather well - not least because there are three parties which could provide the necessary majority to pass legislation, thus allowing the minority government to effectively do whatever it wants.

Going into our fourth MMP election, there is a feeling that we are past the "teething problems" stage. It's given us a greater diversity of views in Parliament, reduced the power of the government, and led to a far more consensual and cooprative political culture (among most parties; the main opposition party still hasn't figured it out yet - but that will change as their holdouts are deelected). It has also produced more representation for women and ethnic minorities, and made all politicians accountable to the voters through the party vote. These have all been positive changes.

Going back to the UK, one of the key questions is whether those in the centre of the political spectrum (who are therefore likely to hold the "balance of power") are opportunistic mercenaries or cooperators. But more important is the question of whether British voters really want to limit the power of their government. And that is a question that should be placed in their hands, not in the hands of self-interested politicians.

9 comments:

Actually, Straw attempted to compare our political culture to Israel in his Guardian piece. Ludicrous, self-serving rubbish. What's also going on here is a subtle attempt to bring the AV in on the back of all this PR furore. Even though it isn't anywhere near proportional, it has piqued interest among Labour bigwigs because they think (perhaps correctly) that with 2 parties broadly of the left in the UK, in permanent electoral majority between them, it would rid Britain of the right forever. Well, I'm on the left myself and I can't think of anything worse than the AV (except maybe FPTP). I'm sick of systems that we're always working out how to 'game'. Just give us a fair and equitable way to translate votes into seats and let the pols take it from there.

Posted by Jarndyce : 5/13/2005 03:38:00 AM

The Alternative Vote is not only a non-proportional system but would in the UK probably produce less proportionate results than First Past the Post. It is not very sensible to reduce the systematic unfairness of the electoral system to the third largest party, by increasing it for the second place party.

It is particularly regrettable that Labour, which since 1997 has introduced several different proportional election systems for other layers of government, is adamantly opposed to doing the same for the House of Commons.

Posted by Gary J : 5/13/2005 08:19:00 AM

I think Labour (and the Tories) want absolute power and are willing to live with the chance of having no power some of the time.

The only way the UK will ever get PR is if FPTP produces a hung parliament with Labour absolutely dependent on the Lib Dems - and then only if Chuckie keeps his nerve.

BTW, I'm not sure the Lib Dems will always remain left of Labour - that's an artefact of the present state of the main parties.

If the Tories ever see sense and move towards the centre, they could well wind up in coalition with the Lib Dems - Heath and Thorpe nearly formed such a coalition in 1973.

Posted by Rich : 5/13/2005 10:22:00 AM

My interest here is with the minor parties (as I'm writing a research essay on them):
The New Zealand political culture of attack (from the Westminster style of governance) does not work that well within a consensus based electoral system. There will be a long period of adjustment to MMP, longer than most commentators actually realise. The notion that the oppositions role is to oppose needs to be reworked into the role of building relationships and working together. I also think that there are too many minor parties for the chance of stability. IMHO there should be around five parties, left, centre-left, centre, centre-right, right.
That system would allow for proper representation of views and allow for consensuses to be built through the centre party who would be in most coalition governments.

Posted by Greg Stephens : 5/13/2005 11:49:00 AM

Greg: I think most of our parties have adapted to the new political culture, the notable exception being National, who seem to wish that this whole silly "democracy" thing would just go away, and that all of those other parties should just obediently fall into line whenever they click their fingers. Which is why they won't be in government until their FPP rump is dead and buried...

As for the number of parties, I think that's up to the voters to decide, not political scientists.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/13/2005 09:32:00 PM

Read Polly Toynbee's column in the Guardian for a response.

Posted by Jordan : 5/14/2005 02:23:00 AM

Read Polly Toynbee's column in the Guardian for a response.

Posted by Jordan : 5/14/2005 02:23:00 AM

"I think Labour (and the Tories) want absolute power and are willing to live with the chance of having no power some of the time."

I think Rich got this right.
I also believe in FPTP, as the party which gains a commons majority by this method has the right IMHO to implement its chosen policies, and PR is little more than a device to thwart this.

Jarndyces comment on labours thinking on PR is also correct

"Labour bigwigs(believe in PR) because they think (perhaps correctly) that with 2 parties broadly of the left in the UK, in permanent electoral majority between them, it would rid Britain of the right forever."

Being of the centre right myself I
would urge caution on those(of the right) who wish to see electoral reforms adopting policies which enjoy the support of both the Gruinad and the Indie.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/14/2005 07:53:00 AM

FYI The Greens have supported the Government on more legislation this term than United Future.

Posted by Kakariki : 5/14/2005 06:08:00 PM