Who Will Stop MMP Reform?

November 5, 2009

To continue the analysis I started in my previous post on the apparent unpopularity of MMP in NZ and its possible demise I ask: Who will try and stop a move back to First-Past-the-Post electoral procedures? Let’s take a purely utilitarian approach to this question.

In Parliament, the opposition must surely be opposed to a government which seems to seek to change the electoral ‘rules of the game’ to its advantage. And I believe the Labour party will oppose a move away from MMP, ostensibly for the reason I mentioned previously: Labour has traditionally had more allies with which to form coalitions under MMP, and can thus consider the current system to be to its advantage.

Because the matter will be decided by a public referendum, one could assume that Labour supporters and supporters of all small parties would vote against a move away from MMP and as a bloc form a majority. National did not win a clear majority in the last election after all.

However as the last post showed, not only National supporters are advocating a change back to First-Past-The-Post. Why? And without a Labour-Small Party bloc who will support MMP?

I suggest that National’s success in wooing the Maori Party and United Future has changed some Labour supporters’ view of the ‘rules of the game’ of MMP in that they no longer see themselves as a priviliged player under MMP compared to National. If National can also form coalitions with three or more smaller parties, what are the benefits to Labour from MMP (over and above those for National, it goes without saying)?

There are none. Labour supporters are therefore put in a position the same as National supporters were up to now: they have no reason to support proportional representation when they could govern alone under First-Past-the-Post (except ideational reasons which I may look at later). By this reasoning, if voters vote according to their parties’ interests at the referenda only small party supporters will support PR and MMP should be shown the door.

How to explain politicians’ continued support of MMP? They are hedging their bets, maintaining their popularity in the eyes of smaller parties, who they will have to work with until 2014 at least, and perhaps beyond if the referenda fail.

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There is a very interesting poll on the NZ Herald website today which shows most New Zealanders would like to change their electoral system away from MMP. 49% said they would vote against MMP at a referendum, 36% said they would vote for it and 15% said they didn’t know which way they would go. There is to be a referendum on whether to keep MMP at the next general election.

To compare these figures to the results of the election a year or so ago: Then only 14% of voters voted for a small party – that is not for National or Labour (but excluding those who did not make it into Parliament). So MMP obviously has support outside its core demographic of voters who do not subscribe to the two main parties.

However, a larger proportion of respondents are against MMP than voted for National at the last election: 49% versus 45%. I find this a little surprising, as my first instinct on MMP reform was that it was just a case of the victors being able to change the rules of the game to ensure their continued electoral success: National has always had a lesser number of willing coalition partners than Labour and thus would prefer a return to FPP. (Yes, I maintained this belief despite John Key’s sincere utterings that most NZers want to stick with MMP – which have been proved to be wrong).

But this result seems to indicate something a little deeper than that: It is not just National, but also Labour, supporters wanting to get rid of proportional representation. The flip-side of the 14% of people voting for smaller parties are the 79% of people voting for either Labour or National, as shown below.

Screenshot

As this graph makes visually clear, if supporters of the two main parties decide that they no longer want proportional representation, and would rather govern alone without coalition partners, they will always be able to push this through.

This is, of course, a simple case of majority rules and exactly what MMP was brought in to prevent. Should the change to MMP therefore be regarded as an anomaly; a short period where the majority were so disillusioned with politics that they were prepared to allow minorities a more significant say, which has now passed?

Of course we will have to see what the results of the actual referenda are, but this initial poll result would suggest that supporters of both main parties are a little more cold-blooded in their attitudes towards minorities than one might have expected.

Three weeks after the Bundestag election in Germany and the discussions between CDU, CSU and FDP continue. It is still not clear what the exact policy directions of the new coalition government will be, or who will occupy which ministerial/government posts.

I see an interesting difference in the coalition bargaining between the parties and what has gone on in NZ after MMP elections since 1996.

The German parties are driving hard bargains. Both the CSU and FDP are sticking to their guns and placing demands on Merkel’s CDU that they make concessions so the smaller parties honour their pre-election commitments. There have been several examples of this as the discussions have gone on, for the FDP most notably in measures protecting personal privacy.

But as predicted, the big one sticking point is tax cuts: both smaller parties want them, the CDU knows they can’t really afford them. Merkel doesn’t want to be seen as fiscally irresponsible and run large deficits just to finance tax cuts (and the CSU will not allow this anyway). The result is a sort of Mexican stand-off. This has been going on for weeks. It has finally been decided that there will be tax cuts, the question is how big they will be.

The important point here compared to NZ is that the coalition bargaining is very detailed, and very contested. I am not an expert on NZ’s coalition agreements, but NZ moved away from both these aspects after the first experience with coalition government in 1996.

Then, Winston Peters and NZ First undertook to draw up a coalition agreement which set out most important policy directions in writing. Peters drove such a hard bargain that he was seen to be holding the country to ransom, and the discussions took so long that the country was without an effective government for two months. NZ First ended up going with National, which was the opposite of what they had alluded to pre-election. The coalition didn’t last very long, and neither did NZ First’s (or MMP’s) popularity.

Since this negative experience with detailed, drawn-out coalition bargains NZ has moved to a more flexible approach based on agreements on confidence and supply (settling other issues on a more ad-hoc basis), which would seem to be more in keeping with the country’s Westminster/common law tradition. Helen Clark’s Labour did this with the Greens in 1999/2002 and with NZ First/United Future in 2005. John Key has a similar confidence and supply agreement with ACT, United Future & Maori Party.

The Germans, however, seem happy to persist with longer, more contested coalition bargaining phases in which major policy issues are hashed out in detail after the election. This is more in line with the German tradition of constitutional consensual government, and the German civil law.

I return to the comparison of which parties are represented in the German and New Zealand houses of parliament and seek to draw some conclusions about what influences party representation in Parliament. Drawing on my previous posts, and bearing in mind that this is just a blog and not an academic paper, I put forward three possible factors influencing party success in elections:

1. Electoral System. A very important factor in a party’s success is the rules under which it is playing the political game. Just ask the Greens, who were never represented in the House before the introduction of MMP but have been ever since.

2. Socio-Economic Factors. According to a typical left-right spectrum, this should be the key influence on party formation and influence, with socio-economic groups organising themselves politically in order to represent their interests in parliament. Perhaps the deciding factor behind the lack of a powerful extreme left party in NZ.

3. Political Culture. This is a very difficult concept in political science: Trying to define political culture has been described as being like ‘nailing a pudding to a wall’. However it is a concept which has lasting influence and appeal. It used to be referred to as ‘socialisation’ – the way that people were initiated into the way politics is done in their society. Phenomena like distrust of  ‘Kingmaker’ parties in NZ, caused by negative previous experience with them, can only be put down to something like political culture.

And as for which factor is most important: As you can see from the brief examples above, they all seem to be important – in different ways and at different times.

It might have struck some of you that the SPD (Labour equivalent) in Germany is in what looks like a terrible state: awful results in the EU elections, very low results in polls, etc.

And if we look across to Britain Labour is in similarly dire straits there: awful results in EU elections, new Tory mayor of London, unpopular leader, low results in polls, etc.

Back in NZ at the election last year, Labour took a drubbing from National; is no longer in Government; has an unpopular leader; and is polling badly.

Looking across these three examples of Social Democratic parties in the doldrums, there are any number of parallels that could be drawn: The departure of a popular and powerful leader (Schröder, Blair, Clark); Responsibility for the current financial crisis (all were in Government up to 2007); Lack of a clear direction or new policies; the list could go on.

An alarmist could even point to further countries in Europe which have recently taken a turn to the right, most notably France but perhaps also Italy or Poland, and declare the demise of Social Democracy. However, fun as it is to speculate on the future of a political ideology, I think this would be short-sighted and a little over the top.

Social Democratic parties have the longest traditions of any parties in Western democracies. They have, over long periods of time, shown a great resilience and capacity to reform and adapt to changing political circumstances. The last generation of  European Social Democratic leaders mentioned above are perhaps the best example of this but in recent memory in NZ we also had the Fourth Labour government.

In hindsight the greatest similarity, and ultimately weakness, across these Social Democratic parties will most likely be seen to be that they were all in Government for a decade (or in NZ’s case, near enough).