Kiwi election result shows value of proportional representation for Greens

Reflecting on the results of New Zealand’s recent election, Green Party member and co-founder of proportional representation campaign group GET PR DONE! Alan Story explains the importance of proportional representation in the Green Party of England and Wales.

NZ Green leaders

From left to right: Chlöe Swarbrick, Gareth Hughes, James Shaw, Marama Davidson, Julie Anne Genter and Eugenie Sage.  

Alan Story

News stories about election results are usually filled with many names and numbers. Who won? Who lost? By how much? Compared to when? Was it a trend? What percentage of votes were won? What percentage of seats? What was the plurality? 

They can be exhausting to read. And especially for people who are not election “junkies”, who can’t tell FPTP from PR or MMP, and who are unable to recall the exact vote totals from “that rollercoaster election” back in ‘19, without resorting to Google or Wikipedia. 

Indeed, such election reports can rapidly turn minds into mush. And readers then miss the much more important questions: what did any of this mean, what are the lessons? 

For the record, and hoping “mushiness” is avoided, here are the basic points from Saturday’s general election in New Zealand: 

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the NZ Labour Party, the incumbents, were returned to power by what is considered “a landslide” in New Zealand terms. They won 49 per cent of the total votes and 64 seats in the 120-member House of Representative, an increase of 18 seats over the 2017 election, when they formed a three-year government with the Greens and New Zealand First. The year 2020 has brought the first majority government to NZ since its form of proportional representation (PR) voting was won here in 1993 by a referendum. 
  •  It was a devastating night for their ‘Conservative Party,’ the NZ National Party, under its new leader Judith (Crusher) Collins. She was National’s third leader in recent months. The Nats got only 27 per cent of the total vote and they lost 19 seats. In 2017, the party won the most votes and the most seats.

  • The right-wing New Zealand First polled less than three per cent and lost all nine of its parliamentary seats. 

  • A right-wing libertarian party called ACT won 10 seats, up from only one in the previous NZ Parliament.

  • The Maori Party won a seat. 

What about the Greens? 

“We won two more seats and there was a definite move to the left overall as a result of Saturday’s vote,” Caroline Glass, policy co-coordinator of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand told Green World in an interview on Sunday (18 October). 

Together, Labour and Greens got 57 per cent of the total vote, while the two main right-wing parties, the Nats and ACT, got 34 per cent. The total Green Party vote was 7.5 per cent, the party now has 10 MPs and scored an important breakthrough in the Auckland Central constituency.

The main reason for the big victory of Ardern and Labour? 

“Covid, Covid, Covid,” former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark told an Auckland TV audience late on Saturday night. 

Since the pandemic kicked off, New Zealand has had a mere 25 deaths and 1,886 total cases; in the UK, we‘ve had 43,576 deaths and 705,428 cases. And a comparative thought for the “big thinkers in Downing Street” to consider: The population of the UK is about 13 times that of New Zealand. If we had used the same Covid prevention methods the Kiwis used, we likely would have had less than 1,000 deaths.    

In a PR system where every vote matters, the voter turnout of Kiwis was a massive 82.5 per cent. (The December 2019 election here had a turnout of 67 per cent). You can read a fuller election report here. 

Two stark statistics from the election

But – and here speaking as a campaigner for proportional representation (PR) in the UK and a member of the Green Party – two stark statistics speak to me above all others. 

New Zealand elections are conducted under what is called a mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system and the Ardern coalition government of 2017 to 2020 was itself a product of this system.  

When you enter a polling station there, you are handed two ballots. One contains candidates for your local constituency; the results from these ballots elect 72 of the 120 parliamentary seats.

But unlike in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system we have in the UK, you also get a second ballot to choose candidates from a party list. The remaining 48 seats in the House of Representative are drawn from the winners of these “list ballots” on a proportional basis. 

A party does, however, need to pass the 5 per cent overall threshold to be eligible for this proportional allocation of seats. (For a fuller backgrounder on the New Zealand electoral system, see this recent article by our Electoral Reform Society…along with an upbeat and slightly cheesy video.) 

In Saturday’s vote, as mentioned above, the Greens received 7.5 per cent of the total votes and got 10 MPs as a result. 

This is the first stark statistic: nine of the 10 Green MPs elected came from the party list system based on PR. Only one Green MP was elected by the FPTP-based constituency counting system. 

That one constituency was Auckland Central where Chloe Swarbrick won in a close three-way fight over Labour and National Party rivals. You can see her in a video here.   

“It is only the second time in history that a Green Party candidate has won in a constituency in New Zealand,” Phil Saxby, a climate emergency activist and Labour Party member told me in a call on Sunday from his home in Ohaka, NZ. Saxby knows about such electoral nuggets. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was a leading – and successful – Labour Party campaigner for electoral reform in his homeland.  

Caroline Glass of the Greens adds:  “Yes, we won more than 7 per cent of votes yesterday, but without MMP, the Greens here would likely only have a single MP.” 

Significance for the Green Party of England and Wales 

Both statistics might have some resonance for members and supporters of the GPEW here in the UK. A poll last week suggested the Greens were now “the third most popular party in the UK” and are favoured by six per cent of voters. 

And which other party has only a single MP? Of course, the GPEW. We have Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion. And we’ve elected one MP, always only Lucas, in the elections of 2010, 2015, 2017, and 2019. 

What about the future? On this point, the Greens could learn from the electoral history of UKIP. In the 2015 general election, UKIP won 12.6 per cent of the overall total and clocked up 3.8 million votes. And how many MPs? One. 

So even if the Green’s popularity doubled to 12 per cent by the time of the next election, if that popularity were reflected in votes cast, and even if its vote total increased five-fold over that in December 2019 (when the Greens won 864,743 votes in total) the party could still win but a single MP. Doesn’t Caroline Lucas deserve company? 

The second stark statistic from the New Zealand election is much easier to understand. On the party list results on Saturday in the 72 NZ constituencies, the Labour Party finished first, amazingly, on 68 of them. There is nothing like having a popular and media-savvy leader such as Ardern. 

It should be stressed that this result does not mean that Labour was allocated about 45 of the 48 list seats. Based on overall votes cast, smaller parties such as the Greens and ACT are allocated seats from this 48-seat pot. 

But if Labour had also been added seats based on this 68-out-of-72 result, “I’ve calculated Labour would have won 95 per cent of the seats from this list as well,” Glass tells me in our interview. 

Could the dangers of a “winner takes all” voting system be made any clearer? Let’s just hope Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t have any illusions he will have the pulling power of Ardern when we next vote.   

Setting aside the arguments of principle in favour of proportional representation – that it would lead to a far more democratic and less distorted political system for all UK voters – can the pragmatic case be made any clearer that the Green Party here needs to urgently launch a well-financed (for the Greens!) and “all-hands-on-deck” campaign in favour of PR? 

Campaigning for proportional representation in the UK

Any campaign to win PR in the UK must start with winning over the Labour Party. As long as the two largest UK parties, the Conservatives and Labour, still support FPTP, such a campaign will not get significant traction. 

If Labour can be won over – and this is no easy victory – then it would be all British parties versus the Tories. Those odds would make eventual victory much easier to achieve.  

There is a longstanding current of opinion in Labour in favour of PR within the party. Back in 1913, its first leader Keir Hardie wrote: “No system of election can be satisfactory which does not give opportunity to all parties to obtain representation in proportion to their voting strength.” 

It will be grassroots pressure from Labour members that will convince today’s Keir to change his mind and to include PR in its next party manifesto. 

A late December 2019 poll revealed that 76 per cent of Labour members support PR, showing that hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members have taken on board the essential electoral fairness that proportional representation represents. 

Moreover, Saturday’s electoral triumph by their Kiwi cousins will show Labour members here that PR is not an anti-Labour stitch-up.

After four straight electoral defeats in a row, including its worst defeat in almost 100 years in 2019, some Labour Party members here still believe in the “one last heave” approach. Some think it can defeat the Tories and single-handedly win a majority government in the next election. 

That would mean increasing the number of MPs by 60 per cent in a single election, and as Norwich Labour MP Clive Lewis told us a month ago in a Green World interview: “The key thing about PR is I don’t think anyone believes that Keir Starmer is going to be able to overturn the Tory majority by 2024 under FPTP, especially with what’s happening in Scotland.” More and more Labour Party members understand this point.  

In this interview, Lewis said: “ Much of our politics is centred around 19th century party political silos”, adding: “the ‘Labourism’ that dominates my party – the attitude that only the Labour Party has the right to call itself a progressive party and lead progressive politics – is not fit for purpose.” 

There is no shortage of Green PR campaign groups to join. The largest is Make Votes Matter. There is also Compass, Unlock Democracy, and there is the group with which I work, GET PR DONE!

The campaign to win Labour over on this matter took a step forward last month when an alliance of nine groups with this objective was established. It is called Labour for a New Democracy

What next for New Zealand?

Ardern is actually quite a centrist social democratic politician. Commentators argue convincingly that the “Ardern years” between 2017 and January 2020 – when COVID-19 kicked off globally – were hardly “transformative years.” 

Glass agrees: “The transformative times only started when COVID-19 started. Jacinda listened to the (public health) experts and she communicated very well with the public.” 

Saxby said: “She began the lockdown before we even had a single death. Every day she stood side by side on TV with the head of our medical services, and he became so popular he was getting marriage proposals.”  

It remains uncertain whether the Greens will join the next Ardern government. In a media interview, Green Party co-leader James Shaw said that in any negotiations, the Greens will put their six-policy package on the table and “see how it goes.” The Greens 2020 election initiatives/ platform can be found here

One thing is certain. In October 2020, 7.5 per cent of the electorate in New Zealand voted Green. About 8 per cent of the MPs (10 out of 120) in New Zealand’s next parliament will be Green. In other words, seats will match votes. The same will be true after the next election in 2023, whatever the result. 

Those Kiwis are a smart – and democratic – folk. 

Alan Story is co-founder of the cross-party campaigning group GET PR DONE! He is also a member of the Green World Editorial Board and the Doncaster Green Party.