Does PR mean coalitions? As New Zealand shows – it’s all down to the voters

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 20th October 2020

The New Zealand Labour party are celebrating a landslide win, with 49 percent of the vote and enough MPs to form a single-party government on their own. This is the first time since New Zealand upgraded their electoral system to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) – also known as the Additional Member System (AMS) in the UK – that one party has gained enough MPs to form a government on its own, but it’s a timely reminder that proportional systems don’t automatically lead to coalitions – proportional representation just supplies the parliament people vote for.

Despite achieving a majority of the vote New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern is still said to be considering forming a coalition government, showing how embedded the culture of cooperation and working together endemic in proportional systems has become in New Zealand’s politics.

New Zealand isn’t the only parliament that use a form of proportional representation to have a single-party government recently. The SNP formed a government on their own in Scotland in 2011 and were only a few seats away in 2016.

No system is perfectly proportional – New Zealand has a threshold of 5% to stop tiny parties winning seats, so while New Zealand Labour nearly got a majority of the vote overall (49%), they got a majority of the votes that elected people to parliament (53% ) (These are the preliminary results, so may slightly change).

To put the proportionality of the voting system in context, with MMP the New Zealand Labour Party won 53% of the seats on 49% of the vote in 2020, while with First Past the Post the UK Labour Party won 55.1% of the seats on 35.2% of the vote in 2005. More recently the Conservatives 2019 election result where they secured 43.6% saw that translated into over 55% of the seats due to the warping effects of First Past the Post.

Across the twentieth century countries with proportional systems have had single-party governments when voters want them to. In 1957, Germany was governed by a single parliamentary group and in Ireland Fianna Fáil governed on their own with a majority in 1938, 1944, 1957, 1965 and 1977. Similarly, Malta, a country that uses Single Transferable Vote to elect its house of representatives, has not had a coalition since the 1950’s.

Unlike First Past the Post which has a bias against smaller parties whose supporters are not geographically concentrated in specific constituencies, proportional voting systems simply reflect how people vote. If people want a single-party majority, they get one; if no party is popular enough to rule alone then they have to find coalition partners.

The idea that proportional systems are designed to stop majorities is rooted in the normalisation of First Past the Post in the UK. A system where you need an advanced degree in statistics to build a Multilevel Regression and Post-Stratification model if you want to know how many seats a party on 45% in the polls will get is labelled as simple, while one where the answer is ‘about 45%’ is ‘confusing and complicated’.

Unlike First Past the Post, proportional voting systems don’t change the results of elections, warping the parliaments out of recognition from how people voted. They simply try their best to reflect how the nation votes – if you want a single party government under a proportional system you need to get out there and actually convince people to vote for you – rather than relying on the system doing the hard work for you.

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