With the UK election demonstrating for all to see the unfairness of their first-past-the-post electoral system - Labour won 55% of the seats on just 36% of the vote, while the LibDems got less than 10% of the seats on 22% of the vote - the pressure for electoral reform is mounting. The Independent has delivered a powerful series of articles on FPP's failings and the way things work in other countries. Today, Jack Straw raises his voice on behalf of those who benefit from the current unequal arrangements. But it all seems rather familiar. Proportional representation will result in small parties exercising disproportionate power, and governments being paralysed and unable to make "tough" (grossly unpopular) decisions if they have to consult other parties or build a coalition to pass legislation. FPP allows voters to hold MPs directly accountable, and allows the winning party's manifesto to be a "contract" between them and the voters. Here in New Zealand, we heard all this over a decade ago...
Straw attacks proportional systems on the basis that they lead to "unstable minority governments where small third and fourth parties often dictate terms". But this is very much a function of political culture. And I'd argue that, given the similarity of our political cultures, people wanting to assess the possible impact of proportional representation on the UK should look at New Zealand, rather than Italy.
So, how has proportional representation worked out here then? Fairly well, IMHO. We've had three elections under our mixed-member proportional system. None has produced a majority government, and in fact in 2002 voters punished the leading party when it seemed that they would gain an outright majority (the British electorate might feel differently; that's up to them). In one election - the first - we did have the sort of case Straw talks about - a smaller party holding the balance of power, using its influence to "wag the dog". But the general consensus is that this was due to that party's opportunistic leader, rather than the system that elected him, and there is a strong desire not to let him do it again. The problem has not recurred in subsequent elections, and coalition formation has been relatively painless.
Rather than having unstable governments, New Zealand seems to have unstable parties. On two occasions, the government's smaller coalition partner has disintegrated under the pressures of coalition. This has not led to new elections - the government has been able to cobble together a majority for confidence and supply - but it has led to smaller parties being fearful of entering formal coalition (which has limited their power and influence somewhat). Because of this, the most recent election saw the government conclude a looser arrangement, with the small United Future party providing confidence and supply, and granting support for legislation on a case-by-case basis. This has worked rather well - not least because there are three parties which could provide the necessary majority to pass legislation, thus allowing the minority government to effectively do whatever it wants.
Going into our fourth MMP election, there is a feeling that we are past the "teething problems" stage. It's given us a greater diversity of views in Parliament, reduced the power of the government, and led to a far more consensual and cooprative political culture (among most parties; the main opposition party still hasn't figured it out yet - but that will change as their holdouts are deelected). It has also produced more representation for women and ethnic minorities, and made all politicians accountable to the voters through the party vote. These have all been positive changes.
Going back to the UK, one of the key questions is whether those in the centre of the political spectrum (who are therefore likely to hold the "balance of power") are opportunistic mercenaries or cooperators. But more important is the question of whether British voters really want to limit the power of their government. And that is a question that should be placed in their hands, not in the hands of self-interested politicians.