Monday, September 14, 2009

Labour plots to break the electoral system

So, the really big news to come out of this weekend's Labour conference is that they want to break the electoral system. Yesterday we had Chris Hipkins floating the idea of "improving" MMP by making it less proportional. Then this morning on Q&A we had Phil Goff saying

we’ve had at this conference quite an interesting discussion about that and the members I’ve talked to have said look we’d like to see fewer list MP’s and more Electorate MP’s. We’d like to see electorates a little bit smaller so that electorate members can give a bit more personal attention to their constituents. Our people tell me that we can do that, we could have as many as 80 electorate MP’s with the balance of 40 being list MPs.
This is grandly described by Lianne Dalziel as "Smaller Electorates, fewer List MPs, while retaining proportionality". But these things are simply incompatible. As I pointed out yesterday (and Andrew Geddis points out again here) fewer list seats means less proportionality, as it significantly increases the chance of a major party overhang. How likely is this? Well, under Labour's 80-40 proposal, assuming a proportionate increase in electorate seats won, we would have been very close to an overhang in 1999 and 2002, with Labour being ineligible for any list seats. And given that the number of electorates (but not the total number of seats) rises with the population, it would not take long before it actually happened.

Overhangs are undesirable, whether they happen for large parties or small parties. They are the price we pay for electorates - but we should try and keep them to a minimum. Labour seems to disagree with that - or simply hasn't thought about it very hard.

But there's a bigger problem with Labour's proposal, and its this: what happens if minor parties - who generally don't win electorate seats - win more than 33% of the vote? What happens if they're entitled to more than 40 seats? It's not beyond the bounds of possibility - see 1996 (where they won 39 seats on 30.4% of the vote, with 7.5% "wasted") and 2002 (where they won 41 seats on 32.9% of the vote with 4.9% "wasted") - and it could quite easily happen again. Under Labour's proposal, its just tough shit - "sorry, our democracy doesn't cater for the actual will of the people" we get regular and increasingly large overhangs leading to an ever-more disproportionate Parliament, a completely unacceptable result. And with built-in growth in the number of electorates, the critical percentage at which our electoral system simply breaks down will get lower with every census.

Basically, MMP needs a reasonable balance between electorates and list seats to function properly. Upset that balance, and it quickly turns back into FPP in disguise. Labour's proposals seem purpose-designed to produce that outcome. They are unprincipled, unproportional, undemocratic, and ultimately unacceptable.

Correction: D'oh! It's not tough shit - we get regular big overhangs instead. Still not good news, but not quite as bad as I feared.