Message to Blackpool: don't make the mistake we did

There is no such thing as an ideal electoral system, so if you want choice go for first-past-the-post
Click to follow
AS BRITAIN contemplates electoral reform, another Westminster- style democracy has already taken the plunge. New Zealand voters decided by referendum in 1993 to abandon the first-past-the-post system. The 1996 New Zealand general election saw the first experiment with a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, in which half the country's MPs are elected in the ordinary way by constituencies, and proportionality is established by a second, party vote which sends candidates drawn from national party lists to parliament.

New Zealanders were fed up with first-past-the-post. The system had, they felt, let them down. A Labour government elected in 1984 proceeded to confound critics and supporters alike by pursuing an aggressive free- market policy. When the voters cried "enough" in 1990, and turned to the conservative National Party, they found they had elected a government even more committed to free-market doctrines.

Not only did first-past-the-post seem to deny voters a real choice, they were also concerned that in a small, open political system, with no written constitution or second chamber, it was possible for a handful of ideologues to push through extreme policies. New Zealanders wanted a system that gave them more control over the politicians.

Reality has not quite met that expectation. MMP has delivered in some respects. The new parliament, as the script demanded, is more representative, with more women and more Maori MPs. And some of the wilder ideological extremes have been tempered by the need to take account of a more fragmented party structure in parliament.

The first shock came, however, immediately after the 1996 election. The result produced what would ordinarily be called a hung parliament, with the balance of power being held by a new centrist party, New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters, a former National cabinet minister.

Peters had campaigned strongly on his determination to get rid of the National government. But in a protracted, eight-week post-election negotiation he edged closer and closer to his former colleagues, abandoning many of his election pledges on the way. He eventually concluded a coalition agreement with National.

The voters felt excluded and let down. The coalition government was immediately unpopular. The strains on its unity eventually proved intolerable, and the coalition ended after 18 months. New Zealand First fractured, some serving ministers opting to stay with the government. National now rules as a minority government, dependent on the support of a rag-bag of minorities and individuals, including one who began as a list MP for the left-wing Alliance Party but who then switched her allegiance to National.

To say that voters are disillusioned is an understatement. Another referendum is scheduled for three years from now, but there is growing pressure for an earlier vote. A vote held now would almost certainly mean the rejection of MMP, though it is anybody's guess as to what the preferred alternative might be.

What lessons for Britain might be drawn from this? My view is that it all depends on what you want your electoral system to do for you.

My experience as a member of the Plant Commission, which looked at electoral reform options for the Labour Party in the early Nineties, tells me that there is no such thing as an ideal electoral system. If you want a proportional and representative parliament, go for PR. If you want a genuine choice between two potential and identifiable governments, go for first-past- the-post. If you do not want to give the political parties more power, avoid list systems. If you attach importance to the link between the MP and the constituency, do not have multi-member constituencies - and so on.

What do Tony Blair and the Labour Party want? On the strength of their record in government so far, it is possible to say with some confidence that what they want is to re-shape the British political landscape so as to produce a permanent government of the centre. In that landscape, the Conservatives would be penned in as a small, fringe party on the right. There would be little fertile ground for any party on the left to cultivate. Occasional wobbles in Labour's support would be moderated by the broad base provided by a PR system that allowed voters to move round in the central landscape in such a way as not to tempt them to go further afield.

This is an ambitious but realisable strategy, at least over the short term. It is consistent with the Government's policies and stated goals. It is all of a piece with a Third Way philosophy, orthodox monetarist policies, and an obvious fear of doing anything to challenge or offend Middle England. For these reasons, I would expect the Government to support some form of PR.

It may equally be expected, however, that the move may not be universally supported. There will be many within Labour's ranks and beyond who may have some misgivings, not on the basis of perceived technical deficiencies in this or that electoral system, but because they are unhappy about the broad political goal which lies behind the move.

They may wish to challenge an approach that gives so much emphasis to being in power rather than using it for defined purposes. They may yearn for a government that looks more widely than the next election, to the possibility of changing society and breaking with the dead weight of British history. They may hope for an economic policy which is not the prisoner of failed orthodoxy and which dares to run the economy in the interests of those millions who work and make a living in it. They might also worry about the health of a supposedly democratic system which hampers choice and stifles new thinking. They might look with alarm at the sort of permanently entrenched government which proved so damaging in post- war Italy, where there were endless elections as coalitions formed and re-formed, but no one could ever get rid of the Christian Democrats.

In the end, politics is not about consensus. The very reason we have politics is because there are hard choices to be made, and we need a mechanism for resolving conflicts of interest and allocating limited resources.

This is not to say that trying to build a consensus wherever possible is not commendable or desirable, or that adversarial politics is always right. But a philosophy which pretends that we are all agreed on everything misses - and is in danger of suppressing - something very important about the democratic process.