Voting systems – why they matter.

I generally don’t hold New Zealand politics up on a pedestal. However there is one decision made in recent years that I do support, and that is changing the NZ electoral system in 1996. For the last 22 years New Zealand has used the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP for short) which is explained here. This system was modeled on the German MMP system, and is used in a number of other countries around the world.

In the 2015 Canadian General election, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau ran on a platform of electoral reform in Canada. This country uses the First Past the Post electoral system also used in the UK, the US and in New Zealand prior to 1996. Disappointingly, Trudeau after being elected abandoned this policy in early 2017 claiming there was lack of public support for such a change. This is disappointing on two counts. Firstly this is a broken election promise. Secondly the best test of public support for electoral reform is through a binding referendum, just as New Zealand held in 1993.

A few days ago, the UK Make Votes Matter campaign released a clip by John Cleese of Monty Python and Faulty Towers fame in favour of electoral reform. This clip can be seen below:

Cleese makes a compelling argument as to why the current voting system for the Westminster Parliament in broken, and why too many voices are not being heard.

I must admit to struggling to understand why electoral reform is not a bigger issue in the UK. In 1951, The Attlee Labour government lost the general election on seats, despite winning the most votes by a significant margin. In 1974 the Ted Heath Conservative government lost the October election (there was another election in February 1974 which it won) despite winning more votes nationally.

In more recent times, no government has won an overall majority in the UK. Thatchers Conservative Government at the height of its support in 1983 only won 44% of the vote. Then in 1997 when the Blair government supposedly won in a landslide, Labour only won 43% of the vote. As Cleese points out in the clip, the numbers were even worse in the 2005 and 2015 elections, where in both cases a single political party won an outright majority in the house of commons despite only winning 35% of the vote.

In the US, First Past the Post resulted in Trump winning the presidency despite losing the popular vote by 2.5 million votes nationally. Also in 2000 George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote by 0.5 million votes, and dodgy maneuvering in Florida. Then there are the issues with House and Senate elections, where again an MMP type system would likely produce a significantly different and probably far more diverse and representative set of results.

In New Zealand the catalyst for change came when the Muldoon National (conservative) government in power from 1975 to 1984 won 3 consecutive terms despite winning fewer votes than the Labour opposition in the 1978 and 1981 general elections. This was followed by two governments which quickly pushed through Neo Liberal reforms despite strong public opposition. Electoral reform was seen as a way holding the two main party’s to account, and ensuring no party that got under 50% of the vote could govern alone.

The New Zealand system isn’t perfect. For example I’d change the threshold that says party’s only get into parliament after winning 5% of the vote unless they get an electorate seat. I’d lower that threshold to say 2-3%, and winning an electorate seat wouldn’t entitle you to additional MP’s if your party got under the threshold.

Despite these niggles, the NZ voting system has worked ok. Yes coalition governments are now normal, and it has forced the two main party’s to compromise (arguably a good thing). However the system has produced stable governments, and in 5 of the 8 MMP elections it has been clear which party or party’s won on election night. In the other 3 elections a government has been formed within a few weeks of the election. It has improved representation with the number of women, Maori, Pacifika, Asian, Queer and other previously under represented groups getting elected to parliament in increased numbers.

No electoral system will fix everything. But it lays the foundation by a strong functioning democracy. Electoral systems like First Past the Post result in too many people not having a voice, and election results that don’t reflect the will of the people.

If you live in the UK you can sign a petition calling for electoral reform here


17 thoughts on “Voting systems – why they matter.

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