Jacinda is gone but New Zealand’s politics has lessons for the UK

Jacinda Ardern’s exit from New Zealand’s top job earlier this year was the first big political surprise of 2023. Having made a name for herself as a charismatic, progressive leader, ultimately throwing an unprecedented spotlight on New Zealand’s politics, she quit after five years in the role. Supporters were saddened but understanding of her very human reasons, while cynics pointed to her party’s plummeting support.

Ardern’s half a decade of leadership, later defined by her government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, threw an unprecedented spotlight on New Zealand and its politics.

The country’s new leader, former Minister of Health Chris Hipkins, affectionately known as Chippy, doesn’t have the same pizazz as Ardern but New Zealand’s upcoming election, and crucially its overall politics, has lessons for the UK’s democracy.

The 2020 election saw the Labour party, who previously governed in coalition with populist New Zealand First, secured a majority of seats by winning over half the votes across the country. The likelihood of New Zealand Labour repeating that feat in October is next to none, with a third term far from guaranteed.

Hipkins’ Labour is trailing the centre-right National party while libertarian ACT and the Greens are battling it out for third place. Meanwhile, Te Pāti Māori are hoping to build on the two seats won in 2020 while New Zealand First harbour hopes of a return to parliament.

The election outcome is uncertain but whatever New Zealanders decide, their parliament will broadly reflect how they vote. New Zealanders owe that to their proportional electoral system.

In contrast, British voters see how First Past the Post (FPTP) distorts the link between seats and votes. Tony Blair won a majority of seats on just 35% of the vote in 2005. David Cameron managed the same with 37% ten years later. The system consistently advantages the big two parties while punishing smaller parties: UKIP took just one seat on 13% of the vote in 2015, whilst the SDP-Liberal Alliance secured only 23 seats on 25% of the vote in 1983. The status-quo is ultimately unfair on voters.

Until the 1990s, New Zealand faced a similar mismatch between seats and votes. In fact, two wrong-winner elections in a row – where the National party won the most seats on fewer votes than the Labour party – were arguably key in prompting the country to upgrade its voting system. At the subsequent election in 1984, won by Labour, the deputy prime minister launched a Royal Commission which went on to recommend PR.

Reform didn’t happen overnight. Change didn’t materialize until the 1990s during which voters backed change in not one but two referendums, likely fueled by distrust of the political class and the opportunity for voters to take politics into their own hands.

Unlike plurality systems such as the UK’s First Past The Post System , proportional systems have a mechanism to ensure that seats broadly match votes. This results in fair, equal votes, and, crucially, encourages parties to work together, recognising the reality that over half the population is unlikely to agree on all the major issues, resulting in a grown-up democracy of compromise and respect.

New Zealand’s journey shows this in action. The 2023 election is the tenth to be held under Mixed-Member Proportional Representation. There has of course been some resistance to the new normal – notably the failed 2011 referendum to ditch PR- but overall, voters and politicians have embraced reform and the multi-party system which has grown with it.

New Zealand’s flavour of PR closely resembles Scotland’s and Germany’s. Voters cast two ballots, one for a constituency representative (including Maori electorates) and one for a nation-wide party list. Party list seats are then distributed taking into account the constituencies won per party to produce overall broadly proportional results. It’s not perfect, recognised in recent Electoral Review Panel proposals, but it shows that a country so once committed to the Westminster political model can embrace fair votes and take its people with it.

So, will the UK follow? The road to electoral reform is filled with obstacles but the stars are aligning.

Electoral reform activists are far from complacent but there’s a real sense that 2024 could be the catalyst for change. Polling suggests Labour are heading for government, and despite the leadership not prioritising PR, delegates strongly backed reform. More recently, the party acknowledged the flaws in our voting system in their draft party program, and trade unions in particular are now calling for change.The Liberal Democrats continue to reiterate their calls for reform and the need for a “truly fair democracy” is one of the party’s  five overarching aims in their pre-manifesto.

New Zealand’s journey to Proportional Representation was long and arduous but campaigning efforts paid off and the country embraced reform. Jacinda Adern is no longer in the spotlight but October’s election serves as a reminder that a fairer, more representative democracy is possible. With an election next year, the UK could be on the cusp of a New Zealand moment of its own.