THE PROSPECT of the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party cresting 50 percent of the Party Vote has generated some odd responses. Perhaps the oddest of these is the suggestion that Labour’s popularity in some way discredits MMP. If we are going to go back to electing majority governments, runs the argument, then why do we need proportional representation?
To which the only reply is: “To make sure that majority governments enjoy real majority support.”
The last time a New Zealand government could lay claim to the support of more than 50 percent of electors was 1951. The snap-election of that year, called to bestow ex post facto justification on the Government’s handling of the bitter Waterfront Lockout, marked the high-water mark of the National Party’s electoral support. Three years later, the arrival of the Social Credit Political League as a fully-fledged contender for parliamentary representation, put an end to New Zealand’s remarkably pure two-party system.
Social Credit claimed a remarkable 11.2 percent of the popular vote in 1954. That result, had it been achieved under the MMP system, would have netted the Social Creditors an impressive 13-15 seats. Under the profoundly undemocratic First-Past-The-Post electoral system, however, the 122,573 New Zealanders who voted Social Credit remained unrepresented.
The 1954 general election is also highly instructive about the inherent unfairness of the FPP system. The two major parties finished the electoral race neck-and-neck. National took 44.3 percent of the popular vote, and Labour, just 1,602 ballots shy of National’s total, took 44.1. Now, in any fair system, the two major parties would have ended the election night with an equal number of seats – give or take. What actually happened was that National celebrated a comfortable victory – ten seats ahead of Labour.
And 1954 was far from being the worst example of FPP’s extraordinary power to distort the popular will. Twenty seven years later, in 1981, Social Credit won a gob-smacking 20.7 percent of the votes cast. This time, at least, it emerged from the fray with two seats. (MMP would have allocated Social Credit 24-26 seats!) It gets worse, however, because in spite of the fact that the Labour Party won 39 percent of the popular vote – 4,122 votes more than the National Party – the pugnacious National Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, was returned to office with a narrow two-seat majority. In other words, with just 38.77 percent of the votes, National nevertheless ended the night with 51.09 percent of the seats in Parliament.
Pretty easy to see, then, just how far away from “majority rule” the FPP electoral system takes a country in which there are more than two effective political parties. New Zealand’s genuine-majority-delivering two-party system endured for five elections only (1938, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1951) a period of just 16 years. Very few New Zealanders alive today can boast of participating in an election which delivered a true majority to either Labour or National. Someone who contributed to National’s 54 percent share of the popular vote in 1951 will enter a polling-booth on 17 October 2020 aged 90+ years-of-age.
Even allowing for its capacity to ensure that the party holding the majority of parliamentary seats won them fair-and-square by securing a majority of the votes cast, the two-party system is very far from being without fault. Squeezing all the many interests and passions of a dynamic modern society into just two political parties is a recipe for what might best be called “structural disappointment”. The ruthless consensus enforcement required in what are perforce “broad church” parties inevitably leaves sizeable minorities feeling outmanoeuvred and aggrieved – with the dire results all-too-clearly on display in the Republican and Democratic parties of the United States. By making space for genuine political diversity, proportional systems encourage a much more vibrant – and representative – form of parliamentary democracy.
That two of New Zealand’s minor parliamentary parties, NZ First and the Greens, may end up being squeezed out of Parliament in the forthcoming election in no way discredits MMP. It merely signals that the conduct of these parties has been sufficiently unedifying to cause the electorate to shift its support elsewhere. Similarly, if the Labour Party have conducted themselves with sufficient grit and grace to claim the support of 50 percent-plus of their fellow citizens, then it fully deserves the chance to give us exactly what we voted for.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 September 2020.
(1) Not just 1981, also 1978:
Lab beat Nats by 10k votes in 1978 but Muldoon won 51 of 92 seats to Lab's 40 (& Social Credit's 275k netting just 1 seat). In 1981, Lab 4k higher than Nats but Muldoon wins 47 of 92 seats to Lab's 43, with SC taking just 2 seats for their 372k.
Social Credit, incidentally, soared to 31% in the TV1 Heylen poll through late 1980 / early 1981, rivalling Labour. Oct 1980: Nat 37%, Lab 31%, SC 31% ... Dec 1980: Nat 36%, Lab 32%, SC 31% ... March 1981: Nat 39%, Lab 31%, SC 30%. Immediate aftermath of SC's success in East Coast Bays By-Election ... and deep rumblings of voter dissatisfaction with both Leaders of the two Major Parties.
(2) Also consider 1993 Election's distortion: Nats win 50 of 99 seats on a mere 35% of the vote ... Alliance win just 2 seats for an enormous 350k votes (18.2%) & NZF net just 2 seats for 161k.
(3) Chris:"Someone who contributed to National’s 54 percent share of the popular vote in 1951 will enter a polling-booth on 17 October 2020 aged 90+ years-of-age."
My Mum's 90 & contributed to the Communist Party's 0.05% of the 1951 vote!!! Was her first vote, had just turned 21 ... her Mother was a fairly senior Labour Party activist within the Wellington region & Equal Pay Campaigner, my Mother herself had been heavily involved in the Junior Labour Party from its inception at the end of WWII ... but she was so displeased with the weak & equivocal position adopted by Nash (a close friend of my Grandmother's) on the 51 Lockout that she cast her first vote as a protest. So at least 1 of the tiny 528 vote tally for the Communists (down from 3500 in 1949) was cast by a non-Communist (cutting the other way, I suspect quite a few actual Communists pragmatically voted Labour at that Election).
I did a detailed analysis of the 1951 Snap Election a couple of decades ago ... and I vaguely remember that although the Nats increased their raw number of votes slightly, it comprised a lower share of overall Eligible voters than in 1949. Also did a very extensive booth-by-booth analysis & found that around one third of booths actually swung to Labour in 1951, but somewhat dwarfed by the two-thirds moving the other way.
Except that MMP wasn't simply about exorcising the electoral unfairness of 1978 and 1981.
It was about punishing the political class of 1975-1993 for perceived abuses of power. After all, National in 1990 had a gigantic electoral mandate to Stop the Revolution - the issue isn't that that Government had no electoral legitimacy, but rather what it did with that legitimacy - namely, extending the Revolution it was elected to stop. MMP made single-party majority government nigh-impossible, for a reason. And, sure, a Jacinda Ardern majority government doesn't look threatening. It isn't. The danger is that the precedent lulls people into thinking a single party majority National Government further down the line won't be so bad.
I think New Zealand's MMP vote and Britain's Brexit vote were, at heart, motivated by the same impulse. To spite the Arrogant and the Powerful.
It will be interesting to see how labour excuses its policy failings once they haven't got the excuse that New Zealand First is putting a damper on them. Housing for instance. I posted a comment on the Guardian about how my son was told he could only afford a $350,000 house, (in Wellington!) after years of saving for a deposit, working shitty shifts, and not having a great deal of social life. A fair few people seem to have agreed with me.
Let's face it, the working class have been generally ignored in favour of middle-class focus groups since the 1980s.
Chris you omit to mention 2017 where National won 45.45% of the vote to labour's 36.09% and the greens' 6.27%. Over 55% of the population did not vote for the left but the left got in purely through the malevolence and dissembling of one Winston Peters.
Your last para was dipped in lemon juice. I trust 84 Labour like I trust the rich to look after me.
The Greens edify me. Their personnel is uninspiring in style, force and cleverness. But their understanding and aims are right.
What is needed can't be done. Where the 'art of the possible' of democracy falls down. The downfall of the Left in the West is we were, and are, scared. Now is the time for a strong, passionate case for reality or ... America. Reaction will have its way here too.
Who speaks for reality?
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