First Past the Post Has Not Served Us Well

Listener: 10 November, 2011.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

What do we really think about economic issues? It is hard enough trying to answer that today, but if you are writing a history of New Zealand, as I am, it’s even harder. Commentators tell us what they think others think, but how do they know? Do you really trust today’s pundits and opinion polls?

When trying to trace the rise of the Labour Party in the interwar period, I thought I could rely on the electoral outcomes. Electors may not tell you what they mean, but at least voting is an objective act. In fact, the story throws more light on the misfunctioning of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

The Labour Party first stood in its current form in 1919, when it won 23.8% of the vote but only eight seats in Parliament (or 10% of the total). In the next election, in 1922, it won a slightly smaller share – 23.7% – but more seats: 17 in all. So what happened in 1925, when its voter share went up to 27.3%? Its seats fell to 12. Getting the picture? Are you surprised that in 1928 Labour’s voter share fell to 26.2% but it won more seats (19)?

The parties of the right had equally bizarre electoral experiences. In 1928, the Reform Party won 34.8% of the voter share, well ahead of the United (Liberal) Party’s 29.8%. Yet with their allies, United won one more seat and became the Government. Or take the 1935 election, usually portrayed as a triumph for Labour. It won 46.1% of the vote. The parties of the right were divided. Together they won 43.1% of the vote; had they not split their vote they would have won 43 seats out of 80, and there would have been no Labour Government.

The voting outcomes settled down a bit once the electoral system was dominated by two parties (after United and Reform merged to form the National Party), although in 1978 and 1981 Labour won more votes than National but fewer seats. Even 1951 and 1954 had peculiarities. Following the waterfront dispute, National’s share of votes went up and it won more seats. Yet its share of enrolled voters actually went down. The big change in 1951 was the rise of non-voters, who were saying, presumably, “a plague on both your houses”.

In 1954, non-voters turned to Social Credit; National won marginally more votes (1548) than Labour, but 10 more seats, and a fifth of the enrolled were not represented in Parliament. The 1957 election was almost a mess, too. Labour won 48.3% of the votes compared with National’s 44.2% but only two more seats – in a proportional system, Labour’s majority would have been four. The first-past-the-post voting system has not reflected voter intentions at all well. Some call it winner-takes-all. There is no winning post to pass; those ahead when the election music stops are called the victors.

Given that the winner-takes-all system did not serve us well, why did it persist? Because successive Governments tried to reflect the country as a whole and not just the people who elected them.

That ended in the 1970s, in part because we were becoming more divided (take, for example, the Springbok tour of 1981) but also because governing became more divisive. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon was so preoccupied with not addressing the country’s economic problems he divided the nation; his financial successors Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson thought they knew the solutions, imposing them without consultation. They never got the country to back them, as shown by the trivial support for the Act Party; their policies failed and subsequent governments have been trying to clean up their mess.

There is probably no perfect electoral system – economist Ken Arrow proved that – but we introduced MMP to restrain the elected dictators. It reflects the diversity in society, instead of pretending, as the other proposed voting systems do, that it does not exist. It won’t help future democratic government to continue that pretence. Whatever the system, the need is for a government that listens to the whole of the country, while offering leadership and not just short-term non-solutions to long-term problems.