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.