Democracy is Not Just Voting

The Way the Voting is Organised Matters Too.

In 2004 I had the privilege of a Fulbright Visiting Professorial Fellowship to the US to further my studies on globalisation. Because an early stage of international integration is regional integration, I was interested in America. It is not only an economic story but a political one, so I spent some of my time looking at the development of the US constitution.

Initially, after the War of Independence, America was a confederation of states. But commercial disputes with the threat of interstate warfare led to a federation embodied in the American Constitution of 1787, the oldest active one in the world.

It was not intended to be ‘democratic’ as we understand the term. Women were not given the vote and slaves were treated even worse; the Bill of Rights was tacked on as an afterthought. Rather, the constitution involved the US states giving up only some of their powers. Hence the composition of the US Senate, based on states so that the smaller ones hold more political weight than their population. Hence the curious composition of the electoral college, biased towards the smaller states, so that George Bush junior and Donald Trump were elected with a minority of the votes (as was Robert Muldoon in 1978 and 1981).

I concluded, over a decade ago, that the US Constitution was, in many ways, obsolete. (Even so, there are features of it I much admire.) I am coming to a similar conclusion in regards to the British (unwritten) constitution. (I have always had doubts about the EU which is even more a confederation of states than the US.)

Britain is currently going through its worst crisis since the Second World War. It cannot even reach a decision whether to stay in the EU or to leave, and on what terms if it does. The immediate reason is that the two largest parties (with 89 percent of the seats in parliament, elected on 82 percent of the vote) are both deeply divided internally. So the two-party system is badly aligned with the great division which confronts Britain.

A general election will not resolve the misalignment. Voting for a Conservative or Labour candidate – even one whose views on the EU question are the same as yours – will not resolve the problem because the winning candidate will join a deeply divided party and British politics will be back to where it was before the election.

A referendum on Britain in the EU seems an obvious resolution (although it may be tricky to frame the questions in a meaningful way). But Britain does not have the same attitudes to referenda that New Zealand does. A century ago we were voting on the liquor question. In the last 70 years there have been another ten parliament-triggered referenda and four nonbinding citizens’ initiated ones. (We may have another three associated with the 2020 election – on recreational marijuana use, euthanasia and modifications to MMP.) Instructively, the ten plus the next three (and indeed the liquor polls) involve questions where parliament was, or is, unable to make up its mind

Perhaps the most important referenda were the two which introduced MMP, which changed dramatically the composition and working of parliament. After Muldoon, Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, New Zealanders were thoroughly fed up with the way the old voting system generated an elected dictatorship. (It was called ‘First-Past-the-Post’, but ‘Front-Runner’ might be more accurate for there is no post; when the music stops the one in front wins.)

(Last year was the 25th anniversary of the successful MMP referendum but there was hardly any mention of it. Have we already become blasé?)

Neither America nor Britain elects their parliaments by proportional representation. In many ways it is Front-Runner which is bogging up the British debate on Brexit. If they had MMP, say, then MPs could abandon their party allegiances and form new parties – say Tories-for-Remain leaving the Conservatives-for-Brexit rump, and similarly for Labour MPs. No wonder party leadership is so opposed to proportional representation.

I was greatly puzzled why Theresa May started her premiership so committed to Brexit. You did not have to be a genius to foresee the troubles she would get into. One explanation is that her prime concern (and that of David Cameron before her) has been to maintain the unity of the Conservative Party, deeply divided by the EU (both failed). I guess she is now so committed to Brexit she cannot contemplate the Remain alternatives even though the polls suggest that the country has flipped from supporting Leave to supporting Remain.

Presumably Brexit Britain and Trumpian American will conform to the Churchillian dictum that they will do the right thing after they tried everything else. The prediction does not say when, nor the terrible cost of the half-baked interim solutions on the way. That includes using a nuclear option – Trump closing government, May threatening No-Deal – when leaders cannot get their way.

We are lucky to have MMP. The American and British constitutions evolved from a simpler, less diverse world which ignored women, blacks and other ethnic minorities, the propertyless and so on. In that sense they were never democratic.

But we should not be complacent about MMP. We still carry over a lot of FPP/FR attitudes. Recall the National Party’s anger that despite having the most seats (but less than half the total) they did not become the government – shades of 1978 and 1981. Observe the difficulty political commentators have in understanding the nature of coalition government where compromises that once happened within secret government caucuses are now more publicly displayed.

And I do not like the tactical fiddling that has gone on with the one-electorate-seat threshold. We have had MPs, and even governments, which have been there because of this anomaly. (I am relaxed about lowering the threshold which determines whether a party gets list seats from 5 to 4 percent as recommended by the Electoral Commission in 2012.) We may get a chance to vote to improve MMP in 2020 because a parliamentary change requires a super-majority and, unsurprisingly, the party which is the chief beneficiary of the anomaly is unwilling to compromise.

However, most of all, we need a change to the mind-set of the antagonism between parties. It is a carryover from pre-MMP days. The reason National is not in government is because it ruled out forming a coalition with its traditional adversary, Labour. Which is stupid because every day each of us cooperates with others of very different political views. (Labour would probably have ruled it out too, once they found they had a viable coalition with NZF and the Greens.)

That is why I welcome Simon Bridges’ promise to work constructively on policies to combat and mitigate climate change. I would welcome a lot more collaboration in Parliament. Unfortunately, trapped in the past, it falls upon Her Majesty’s Opposition to act adversarially. We run the country like the conflict in a court case, rather than cooperatively. I await a leadership which is more like statespeople than squabbling lawyers.