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Synthesis/Regeneration 15   (Winter 1998)

Mixed Lessons of PR in New Zealand

by Sue Miles, Oxford Green Party, International Coordinator, Green Party of England, Wales and Northern Ireland

In October, 1996 the people of New Zealand voted in their first general election under a proportional voting system instead of "first past the post." The new system, chosen in a referendum, is an "additional member" system very similar to that used in Germany. As a result of this apparently technical change the entire political landscape was changed and the Green vote actually went down! There must be lessons in this experience for us in this country.

The signals are ambiguous. I offer here some personal reflections. I have followed the fortunes of Green parties in countries with PR systems for 15 years, and have long been concerned that many people in England and in our party regard PR as a panacea. The NZ result will certainly be a lesson to them!

Fewer Green votes

The Green Party of NZ is the oldest in the world, having been founded as the Values Party in 1972, the year before ours. One might think that to get only three MPs in the first PR election after all that time is very disappointing. Personally, I think it is not all that bad. The three members should do a good job, they will be gaining invaluable experience, and will have resources which can help the party enormously.

A very clear lesson is that Greens cannot assume that under PR more people, or even as many, will vote for them as have done so under a first-past-the-post system. In the 1990 General Election in NZ, the Greens polled 7%. In 1991 they formed an Alliance with New Labor (roughly the equivalent of old Labor here), Mana Motuhake, a Maori party, and two tiny parties, the Democrats and the Liberals. This Alliance then went on to gain 18% of the votes in the 1993 GE, but no MPs. In the opinion polls before the 1996 election, the Alliance had over 20% of the vote, but in "the only poll that matters" they got a mere 10.1% and 13 MPs.

So, in the 1996 PR election, the Alliance vote decreased from 18% to 10% and the Green vote, although difficult to calculate exactly from the figures available to me, was certainly rather lower than the 7% they gained under FPTP in 1990.

The overall result of the election would seem to be a move to the right. The National Party (Conservatives) won 44 seats, and Labor, which is now more Thatcherite than Thatcher, won 37. Two small right-wing parties got 9 seats between them. The wild card is New Zealand First, a new party formed around former National Party MP Winston Peters. This party is anti-immigrant and draws its support mostly from Peters' fellow-Maoris, who have traditionally supported Labor. The Alliance with its 13 MPs could then be seen to be the only progressive force in parliament.

PR does not mean politics as before, but with a fairer result; it means a completely different political scene.

There are several possible explanations for the decline in support for the Greens. Maybe some people will vote Green as a protest, when there is no possibility that we will be elected. Others are perhaps deterred when they learn more about our policies! Yet others may vote Green in the absence of other choices, and when other small parties spring up, change their allegiance. The decline in support for the rest of the Alliance may be simply a consequence of a general shift to the right.

Which highlights a Green fundamental: when you change one thing, you change everything! The introduction of PR does not mean politics as before, but with a fairer result; it means a completely different political scene. Which is no doubt why many politicians in this country fear it!

More competing parties

In NZ, new parties have formed around "star" politicians who have broken away from the Labor and National Parties. However, with the exception of NZ First they all failed to get over the 5% threshold for representation. A green splinter failed similarly. This might very well happen here; we can be certain that new parties will be formed, at any rate. And these parties will contain wily old politicians, who will run rings round the inexperienced Greens.

The NZ Greens, who got 3 of the 13 seats won by the Alliance, may or may not have been stitched up by their partners, but we should certainly learn the lesson that constructing lists is a very complicated business. No political party in the UK has experience of it, but then neither had any in NZ, and it looks as though the people with general political experience were still rather better at it than the Greens!

Building support now

The lesson I draw from this election result is that we should not expect too much from any change to the electoral system. The Green Party could be damaged perhaps beyond repair by going into a PR election with unrealistic hopes, which would almost certainly be dashed.

We should redouble our efforts to get more people elected under the present system, which means of course in local elections.

We should redouble our efforts to get more people elected under the present system, which means of course in local elections. That way we get a bigger pool of members with real political experience-not only the councilors themselves, but also their support groups in their local parties. This will give us a better chance of being able to hold our own with the wheelers and dealers of other parties.

We should also continue to build up real, solid support for our policies. That way we will know that a good proportion of our current votes are really Green, and not just protest votes.

This article originally appeared in The Way Ahead (No. 31, February, 1997, pp. 8-9), a newsletter for Green Party radicals and others on the green left in England. [13 Shetland Drive, Nuneaton, Warwicks, CV10 7LA, tel: 01203 325890]

A Note on names: "NewLabor" in NZ is a left party which left the NZ Labor Party when that moved to the right. In the United Kingdom, "New Labor" is the preferred designation of the Labor Party after it has moved to the right, the term "old Labor" being used to refer to those unhappy with that shift.

The Green party in New Zealand is The Green Party of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Aotearoa is the Maori name of the country, meaning "long white cloud," the first thing the Maori settlers would have seen as their boats approached the land.

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