First past the post - the view from New Zealand

Once you've voted under a fairer system, first past the post looks backward.
Tan Copsey
22 June 2010

Like many readers of this website I’ve spent a lot of time discussing electoral reform lately. As an Anglo-New Zealander I’m in a position to add something slightly unusual to these debates. I’ve now voted in First Past the Post parliamentary elections and a proportional alternative. This May I cast my vote in Hackney South and Shoreditch. In 2008 I voted in Auckland Central. But there’s a key difference. In New Zealand my vote counted, here it didn’t.


My first experience of voting in the UK left me disillusioned. My constituency, Hackney South and Shoreditch, is Labour territory and my MP, Meg Hillier was always going to win. Unfortunately for me her voting record includes support for aspects of Labour policy I oppose - introducing ID cards and renewing Trident and opposition to some aspects I support – particularly climate change legislation. So what was I to do? No other political parties seemed to be mounting a serious campaign against her. Even some Labour party supporters I talked to expressed dissatisfaction with her performance.  In the end I wasted my vote on a candidate with no chance of being elected, while the Labour majority in my constituency actually increased.

In 2008 I voted in New Zealand. The overall outcome was superficially very similar - a coalition government led by a conservative party. Again I voted for a local candidate who did not win. My constituency fell to the conservative National party for the first time. But under the German-style Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system New Zealand introduced in 1996, my party vote contributed to an additional Member of Parliament for the New Zealand Greens – a party closely aligned to my hodgepodge of post-materialist, lefty interests and opinions. It also made a tangible difference to the composition of parliament.

I support electoral reform in the UK. But the upcoming referendum on whether to switch to Alternate Vote (AV) compares very badly to the referenda that changed New Zealand’s political system. In 1992 Kiwis were presented with a range of options as part of an initial non-binding referendum. Voters were asked whether they wanted to change the system and if so, what system they would replace it with. A vast majority were in favour of replacing the system. Of these 70.3% favoured moving to a the German style MMP, 17.5% voted for a Single Transferable Vote, 6.6% for AV and 5.5% a Supplementary Member system. A further, binding referendum was then held alongside the 1993 general election, where voters were offered a straight choice between FPP and MMP.  MMP won and proportional representation was introduced. We’ll be given the opportunity to vote again on whether we change or retain the system in 2011.

What matters here is not the outcome, though it is interesting how few people supported AV when given the opportunity, but the process. It seems odd to have put together a referendum on reforming a democratic system in such a non-inclusive, dare I say, non-democratic way. Again I feel that I am not being given a real choice. I will not have the option to vote for a system I support.

After the recent UK general election I talked to Jeanette Fitzsimons, the former leader of the New Zealand Green Party, who has just retired after 14 years in parliament. She explained how opponents of proportional representation have learnt negative lessons from New Zealand’s example and suggested that it was no coincidence that the British Conservative party had agreed to a referendum with such a limited choice. She also cited what she believed to be a tactic used by opponents of change in the Canadian state of Ontario, where funding for a public education campaigns to run before a similar referendum was severely limited. It will be interesting to see whether, in this age of austerity, sufficient resources will be put aside for an expensive public education campaign prior to a referendum on AV.

In the absence of information, ridiculous falsehoods abound and are perpetrated by those who should know better. I had the misfortune recently of attending a Labour Party leadership debate, ironically co-hosted by the Electoral Reform Society, where candidates took it in turns to present spurious and often false arguments against proportional representation. Particularly alarming was Dianne Abbott’s insistence that as a black, female MP her chances of being selected to stand for the Labour party would have suffered under PR. In New Zealand representation of women and ethnic minorities has increased markedly since we switched systems. Hell, we’ve elected transgender, Rastafarian and even Libertarian MPs. Fellow leadership candidate Andy Burnham was, perhaps accidentally, honest when he questioned whether such systems would be ‘good for the Labour party’, rather neatly leaving aside questions of democracy.

People used to say that visiting New Zealand was like visiting Britain in the 1950s. For me voting in Britain was like voting in New Zealand in the 1950s.

Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.

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