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Why National really hates proportional electoral systems

Written By: - Date published: 2:22 pm, November 5th, 2009 - 25 comments
Categories: electoral systems, First Past the Post, labour, MMP, national - Tags: , ,

NZ vote and seat proportions 1938-1993 c

These data, taken from the Elections NZ site, show election results since National’s inception up until the last First Past the Post (FPP) election in 1993. I think they show fairly clearly why National is so keen to dump our proportional electoral system in favour of FPP or its drag cousin Supplementary Member (SM), which is really just FPP with a bit of proportion-flavoured lipstick.

First thing to note is the difference between the percentage of votes each party won (the equivalent of the Party Vote in the MMP system) and the percentage of seats in the House allocated by FPP. In MMP of course these two values are always pretty much identical. But under FPP it’s not uncommon for there to be consistent, sometimes quite large, differences between the nation-wide proportion of votes a party gets and the proportion of seats in the House it’s allocated (which is the real measure of how much parliamentary power a party wields).

You’ll see in 1954 National won 0.2% more votes than Labour (which under MMP would have meant the same number of seats for both parties), but because of the vagaries of the electorate based seat distribution system at the core of FPP, this translated to National getting just over 15% more seats in the House. Now it’s true that in FPP, all you need is one more seat than your opponents to form a government, so in one sense the disproportion is immaterial. It’s also true however, that a party that rules with a one seat majority is far less inclined to indulge in maniacal policies than a party that enjoys the safety of a 15% margin.

More importantly on that note though, are the 1978 and 1981 elections. Both those went to National, despite Labour actually winning more votes than National on both occasions.

Now if it was all just swings and roundabouts such that sometimes National was advantaged and sometimes Labour then it wouldn’t be such a problem. But under FPP, National enjoyed a disproportionate distribution of seats (7.1%) almost twice that of Labour (3.6%). An electoral system that systematically advantages one party over another is a serious kick in the teeth for democracy whichever way you look at it.

The other obvious point to note is the fates of the other (OTH) parties during that period. The minor parties had an average disproportion disadvantage of 10.7%, and unlike National and Labour, there were never any disproportion advantages. Between 1978 and 1984 the minor parties won around 1 in 5 of every vote yet were awarded only 1 in 20 of the seats in the House. In 1993, when other parties did better than they’d ever done before during that same period, the ratio was even worse: 4% of the seats from 30% of the vote!

Believe me, if you think multi-party government is better than single party government, or you think a multi-party Parliament is better than a two party Parliament, you don’t want disproportional systems like FPP or SM. The way FPP works means a county’s party system inexorably move to effectively a Two, or Two and a Half, party system. Minor parties never get a chance of holding bugger-all power, and they eventually wither away.

I don’t have space here to mention how MMP encourages a more diverse and representative House, or how MMP makes the gerrymandering that was once rife under FPP largely redundant, but next time I’ll talk about how the FPP system produces these inquities and how it always disadvantages parties supported by geographically concentrated populations.

Just remember for now that the non-proportionality of FPP systematically favoured National and drastically disadvantaged all minor parties. Funny that.

25 comments on “Why National really hates proportional electoral systems ”

  1. George D 1

    There was never any chance to vote the bastards out. You either got National’s bastards, or you got Labour’s.

    Labour was stupid to defend the system, because the left almost always got more votes, but they liked keeping the cabinet table to themselves, so they fought against proportional representation to the end. They’ve come around eventually, even if their support is fairly lukewarm now.

    It’s obvious why National opposes it

    • agreed George. the slowness of Labour’s conversion to appreciating the merits of PR wasn’t a great look.

      • Bright Red 1.1.1

        The irony is that Labour had proportionate representation as a goal in its original principles in 1916, but they never implemented it once they were a major party.

        • George D

          There was actually a major movement for better electoral systems at the time. The UK Parliament in 1917 voted to use STV in around 40% of the constituencies, but three times they were blocked by the ruling class in the House of Lords (the reasonable solution would have been to declare a people’s Government and abolish the upper house!)

    • At an activist level my impression is that the vast majority of Labour members have always fully supported MMP. You don’t lose two elections in a row to have to be persuaded about the benefit of a proportional representative system.

      • the sprout 1.2.1

        yes there is data now to show that like all minor party voters, Labour voters also support MMP.

        only Nat voters show an overall preference for FPP (ACT voters don’t, contrary to Rodney’s view). more on that another time.

  2. prism 2

    Youve hit the nail on the head George. I think it was such a rush of blood to the head when Labour finally got in that they were reluctant to reduce the potency of the high by having to traipse around with the minor parties.

  3. prism 3

    Great informative table sprout.

  4. Outofbed 4

    I am supporter of MMP it is working just fine
    However just needs bit of tweaking so that Epsom voters don’t have
    more power with their votes then everyone else
    And as much as I don’t like NZF it is not fair that the 4% +of people who voted for them were disenfranchised.
    There can’t be too many countries in the world going backwards from PR to FFP .It is a retrograde step Lets have a referendum about removing the right of women to vote while we are at it then eh

  5. Draco T Bastard 5

    FPP voting system through an electorate vote must produce a two party system. It cannot be any other way simply because voting for any other party guarantees that you’re throwing your vote away. The chart proves that quite conclusively.

    Of course, FPP was thought up when it was considered that every MP would be an independent and not a member of a party and that people would be voting for the person and not a party (ie, it would be inherently proportional). This didn’t work out for a few reasons:
    1.) Going through a list of several candidates and their policies and then choosing which you preferred for your electorate simply takes up to much time and effort. (Choice invariably costs more)
    2.) Candidates themselves are going to have to have a platform which gets a reasonable amount of support from the other MPs meaning it would also be easier to belong to a party where you knew what your support was before hand.
    3.) Money. An individual generally doesn’t have a lot of cash to throw around for advertising or to stop going to work. A party on the other hand usually has a support base that has thousands of people paying into it which removes that stress point.

    So, to get proportional representation in a representative democracy requires that the party vote determine the proportion and not the electorate vote. In fact, we could do without the electorate vote altogether.

    • well put Draco.

      i agree too that the electorate vote is something of an anachronism, but the Royal Commission recommended MMP in part because it does still accommodate the electorate vote aspect, something the RC rightly thought many NZers would want to keep.

      personally i think the idea of an electorate MP as someone with a strong personal connection to a geographical location is good, but in reality many MPs don’t live anywhere near their electorates, or their electorates are so large they could hardly be expected to identify with an entire region.

  6. RedLogix 6

    Well with 60% of the electorate loving National right now, there’s every reason to think that a fair whack of them would also vote for an electoral system they believe will favour their preferred choice.

  7. Even if National were still riding that high at the time of the referendum, which is very unlikely, a poll that asks do you prefer the current government to lead and a referendum that asks would you like to change the electoral system [that produced this government] are not very comparable choices.

    if you add up all the hard support for Labour and the minor parties, and the minority of National voters who do support MMP, they easily outweigh the hard National support majority in that are in favour of FPP.

    • kelsey 7.1

      Yes indeed, I’m a strong supporter of National and am quite satisfied with MMP. I believe that age is a major factor – the younger you are the more likely you are to support MMP. Heck, I’ve never voted in a FPP election.

      You’ve always got to remember with these things that the system will outlast any government so you have to think about how you feel if the other lot have a big majority… how do you feel about it then?

  8. DS 8

    Oddly enough, a real problem for Labour during the FPP era was the existence of the Maori seats. By sucking Labour voters into just four ultra-safe electorates, the Maori seats acted as a pro-National gerrymander.

    • true, good point. interesting to consider what affect the presence of the Maori Party and an expanded Maori roll would have in an FPP environment

  9. prism 9

    “However just needs bit of tweaking so that Epsom voters don’t have
    more power with their votes then everyone else
    And as much as I don’t like NZF it is not fair that the 4% +of people who voted for them were disenfranchised.”

    It seems important not to have too low a threshhold. I have the idea that Israel has a low threshhold and it lets too many fractured small parties in and causes too much infighting with a loss of time considering the country’s needs. If we changed our system so that electorate winners still under 5% could only have one other MP with them we might have a better result. One MP on their own would struggle to do the job, the present system gives an unjustified advantage elevating the winner and mates as if they had passed the 5% barrier.

    • i agree with the reasons for maintaining a threshold, although it might be slightly lower than 5%.

      not so sure i agree with the ‘…OR win an electorate seat’ component though. after all, that’s another recipe for the Israeli problem of a fractured party system… not to mention Das ACT Problem 😉

  10. Ag 10

    People seem to forget that we only have MMP because of a National Prime Minister.

    I’d never vote for a Nat, but even I can admit that there are plenty of National supporters and even some high ranking party members who are quite capable of putting the interests of democracy ahead of their own partisan interest.

    • the sprout 10.1

      Ag, not really. the 4th Labour govt got a Royal Commission together, the findings of which combined with the considerable public disaffection towards FPP after the results it had produced in then recent elections, made it pretty well impossible for Bolger to ignore. That’s what forced a referendum and eventual change to MMP.

      Having said that it is true that there are Nats who support MMP.

      • Ag 10.1.1

        Labour weren’t going to do it they chickened out so Bolger made it part of National’s election platform. He could probably have got away without having the referendum either, especially since most opponents of MMP were supporters of his party, and it’s not like National weren’t happy to backtrack on other promises in any case. One more wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

        I always thought Bolger’s insistence on the referendum was peculiar. The fact that he went through with it, despite it being politically poisonous for him and his party, still impresses me. The simplest explanation is that he reasoned that it was the right thing to do for the good of the country. He was right, and whatever other complaints we have about that government, he deserves a gold star next to his name for his promotion of electoral reform. He was right about MMP and he was also right about New Zealand becoming a Republic, although the latter unfortunately did not take.

        Refusing to give him credit for this, and trying to excuse Labour’s appalling behaviour on the same issue is just churlish.

  11. Manu 11

    To the surprise of his colleagues, Lange promised a binding referendum during the 1987 televised leaders’ debate. After the election, the RC report was referred to a select committee (interestingly, they opted for SM). Bolger promised a referendum in 1990 to highlight the 4th Labour govt’s record of broken promises, but I suspect he thought a National victory would dissipate support for a change of electoral system. We all know how that turned out. (for a comprehensive background to all of this, see the late Keith Jackson and Alan McRobie’s book ‘NZ Adopts Proportional Representation’).

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