Fighting for fair votes around the world – lessons from the Global Greens Congress

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 7th April 2017

Proportional representation has been a longstanding campaign of the Greens. But not just here in the UK – democratic reform is often a key plank of Green platforms.

So it was fascinating to see leaders of the Green parties of Canada, New Zealand, the US, Japan and Korea come speak alongside each other at Make Votes Matter’s fringe at the Green Party’s Spring Conference in Liverpool last week, which we took part in.

Metiria Turei, co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, kicked off the discussion, noting that there was a long campaign to get PR in New Zealand.

It was successful too, following a two-stage referendum in the early 1990s which led to the implementation of MMP (what Brits would call the Additional Member System).

‘The New Zealand Greens would not exist without having MPs. We went straight from three MP to seven when MMP came in.’

It has had a huge impact on political culture: ‘I was one of those people who thought that Parliament didn’t mean anything to people like me. Until we had representation.’

Elizabeth May, leader of the Canadian Greens, continues to campaign for PR – despite Justin Trudeau recently dropping his pledge for fair votes.

Canada has a history of ‘wrong winner’ results, where the party which wins the most votes doesn’t win the most seats. So ‘It’s been a huge blow that Justin [Trudeau] broke his promise for PR.’

People sometimes say proportional voting promotes extreme politics. But May points out that ‘right now all the political incentives are for extreme politics under FPTP’ – parties can win a monopoly on power with a minority of the vote – something which those with extreme politics can jump on.

‘The political culture changes when you have fairer votes.’

The campaign for democratic reform is also growing in Japan. In 1994, Japan introduced a mixed PR system. But International Secretary Ricky Adachi notes that it means candidates can make a ‘double entry’ into Parliament: if they lose the constituency vote, they come in through the PR element ‘like a zombie’. A huge barrier, however, is the cost to run – 50,000 Euros per candidate, to be precise.

It’s a lesson that campaigners need to think about structures. ‘We need to be very careful when we introduce PR systems about how it works – the mechanisms and processes behind it.’ The Korean Greens are also campaigning for fair votes, with a court ruling the voting system unconstitutional, and suggesting a similar system to Germany’s.

But convincing the public has to be a priority, says former Green Party of England & Wales leader Natalie Bennett – ‘we need to say let’s take back control of Westminster. And to talk about ‘fair votes’ rather than electoral reform.

The movement to ‘take back control’ is growing in the US too. The Greens’ Jill Stein says the good news from the US is that people are throwing their weight behind PR because of our voting system.

Yet it’s difficult getting the arguments out. ‘Political debates are gerrymandered and controlled by the two big parties,’ she says.

There are no silver bullets to these problems. As Matiria Turei points out: ‘It is a long road and PR is not a panacea. But it gets us through the door.

‘We’re in it for the long haul’ – broad democratic reform. That includes things like votes at 16 and making party funding fairer.

Bennett says one way of securing those reforms which people can agree on is to bring ordinary citizens together. ‘I support the idea of a people’s constitutional convention to decide on what [voting] system to use.’

There’s plenty of anger out there. 90% of US have lost faith in our elections, Stein points out. And ‘while it’s very polarised, most people are screaming for change.’

It makes it easier to convey pro-reform arguments: ‘The job isn’t to change people’s minds, but to tell people there’s an alternative.’

The Greens’ focus right now in the US is on ranked choice voting (AV), following on from the success of Maine.

Of course, all this needs activists and organisations campaigning for change, with Bennett summing up the mood of the meeting: ‘Politics is something you do, not something you have done to you.’

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