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May 17, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Politics with Paul

For a politics nerd, elections are a lot like an important final as played in your preferred team sport. There are teams, complete with certain key players, operating under a set of rules as set out by the electoral system they are operating under.

One could think of the campaign trail as the first half of the match, setting the scene for the second, more tantalising half which is of course, election night. This ‘second half’, which has many of us glued to television screens, builds upon the first, which commonly sees the continuation of the advances achieved in that first half, but sometimes filled with stunning comebacks and shocking upsets. Sure, there is a glaring difference in that there are more than two teams generally involved in politics, but you get the picture.

Continuing with the analogy, the recent British election was particularly exciting as it went into overtime, so to speak. The hung parliament, in which no party won a clear majority, resulted in a sort of penalty shootout, where the Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg ultimately played goalie, letting one of the parties through.

As I write this, leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron, as per Britain’s traditional conventions, has just been asked by the Queen to form a government in the wake of the resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In his address in front of the famous black door at number 10 Downing Street, Cameron has said it is his intention to enter into a full coalition with the Liberal Democrats, with Nick Clegg filling the role of Deputy Prime Minister, entering an area of governance that the British are fairly unfamiliar with.

What makes this coalition interesting is that the Conservatives, who have been staunchly resistant to electoral change, have been forced to concede a referendum on the electoral system as a key part of the negotiations for a partnership. This referendum will likely see the British vote on whether to follow New Zealand’s example from 1993, to move away from the problematic First Past the Post (FPP) voting system towards a more representative system. Thus, the aforementioned rules of the game are set to change.

Considering the fact the Liberal Democrats won fewer than 10 per cent of the seats, despite gaining almost a quarter of the votes, it is not surprising they are using the power afforded to them by this election result to amend a system that disproportionately rewards the dominant parties by simultaneously penalising the all others.

So what are the options? In the 1993, and similarly in the planned 2011 electoral system referenda in New Zealand, the public are given a choice of not only whether to stick with the current electoral system or change to a different system, but they also are given a chance to illustrate a preference for a number of alternative voting systems. Despite New Zealand’s example, and the Liberal Democrat’s own preference for a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, The Independent has reported that the Conservative’s final offer is “a referendum on Alternative Voting (AV), the least ambitious electoral reform”.

AV, or Instant-Runoff voting, is a system currently used to elect the Australia House of Representatives. Voters rank candidates in an order of preference, rather than just voting for one, as in the FPP system. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the least number of first preferences is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are redistributed according to the voter’s second preference, and so on and so forth. The system is seen as fairer than the FPP system, because even though the House of Parliament is still elected wholly via constituencies, the issue around wasted votes is rectified.

In 1998, the Jenkins Commission, charged with reviewing the electoral system in Britain, recommended a change to a slightly different AV+ system, which is even closer to New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. Most members of parliament are still elected via the AV system as explained above, but an additional 15–20 per cent of members would be elected via party lists based on each party’s overall performance in the popular vote, thus making the final makeup of the British Parliament more proportional. There hasn’t been a clear indication whether the option for the referendum is straight AV, or this untested AV+, although a move toward the latter is unlikely.

At the end of the day, it is essential New Zealanders analyse the problems of a less proportional system as seen in the recent UK election, because while the UK look towards progressive electoral reform, New Zealand faces the risk of regressing to a less proportional system in 2011. As Dr Jon Johansson told Salient earlier this year, “Whether tweedle dee or tweedle dum wins the 2011 election (in New Zealand), it’s far more significant in a constitutional sense, our decision on the electoral system.”

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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    “the Liberal Democrats won fewer than 10 per cent of the seats, despite gaining almost a quarter of the votes”:

    – Yes, the whole situation is almost laughable. A party which won just 30+ per cent of the votes cannot really claim to have a moral right to be calling all the shots.

    For representative democracy is not all about which single politician or political ‘party’ (which is just an artificial construct) has won more votes than any other single politician or political ‘party’, or which single politician or political ‘party’ can shout louder than anyone else.

    It should be more about the people/electorateas a whole, and whether/how the resultant parliament, as a whole, can be as representative as possible, so as to best represent and serve the people/electorate- as a whole.

  2. James says:

    True, and I agree, for the most part. The proble, though, is that PR systems of government can actually make it much more democratic. The majority of Liberal Democrat voters, I think, would vote -against- the tories. The majority of people who support the Maori party certainly wouldn’t have been happy with their alliance with the Nats. The -actual- government is formed behind closed doors, with deals made that don’t always surface.

  3. Electrum Stardust says:

    Obviously, PR systems cannot solve all the problems inherent in FPP, but in the case of the Lib Dems (at least), PR would probably have allowed for a Labour-Lib majority, which, as you correctly noted, is a much more ‘natural’ pan-left coalition.

    As for secret “deals”- yes, that’s not always a good look, but under PR, the resultant government will at least (be forced to) contain a wider range of voices. In a FPP ‘winner-takes-it-all’ system, no “deals” are needed simply because a single party may exercise almost unbridled power, even if that party actually wins less than half the votes- as had certainly happened in New Zealand and the UK. So, while PR may not necessarily “make it much more democratic”, it certainly makes it much more representative.

    (Note also that there are many different kinds of Proportional Representation, as the article rightly mentions.)

  4. Oscar & Walker says:

    Legend!

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