ARCHIVE: Political reform: still a choice or new political necessity?

[First Published on Monday 1st November 2010]

The following post was first published on ConSoc’s previous site. It is recorded here as a window onto issues as they were at the time. For more up to date news on the Constitution and Constitutional reform, make sure to follow the ConSoc blog.

Professor Margaret Wilson, Former President of the New Zealand Labour Party and Speaker of the NZ Parliament, gave a fascinating lecture at Portcullis House last week on behalf of the NZ-UK Link Foundation.  Discussing New Zealand’s experience of proportional representation in the context of UK proposals for constitutional reform, Professor Wilson was responded to by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a well-known authority on the British Constitution.   The speakers agreed unreservedly: there is many a lesson to be learnt in the UK from the experience of our Commonwealth cousin.

The case for comparison is clear.  New Zealand and the UK are two of only three liberal democracies globally which follow the Westminster tradition of an ‘unwritten’ Constitution (the third, Israel, is now undergoing a process of codification).  Following a binding referendum in 1993, New Zealand switched from FPTP to MMP (a form of proportional representation) for elections to their (single chamber) Parliament.  Such radical change rode on a wave of political activism following a growing crisis of public confidence in politicians and the political system.  Nearly two decades on, a comparable context of public outcry in the UK has triggered proposals for a similar referendum on electoral reform next May.

Fundamentally, though, the process of reform is different.  In a preliminary, solely indicative, referendum, New Zealanders were given a wide choice of electoral systems and asked which one they preferred.  A binding secondary referendum a year later was then used to confirm their desire to change to this from the status quo. The UK electorate will be given no such strength of voice.  With only one referendum, their choice is binary: the Alternative Vote or no change at all.  Warned by both Professors Bogdanor and Wilson of the problematic implications of this one-off referendum approach, nobody present at the event could defend the choice.

Led by the public voice, New Zealand made the radical change to proportional representation in their 1996 general election.  While the implications of such reform have limited significance for the UK, given it faces the prospect of the still majoritarian AV, the broader theme of a changed political system and its implications for constitutional reform are highly relevant.

Professor Bogdanor claimed that the context of public outcry triggering these common processes of electoral reform is not an isolated instance but a new reality.  The Westminster model is a ‘top-down’ approach to government and it has not yet grown to accommodate an increasing public sense of the general right to know, to influence and to control.  The most recent consequence has been a ‘knee-jerk’ programme for reform, guided principally by the trademark of ‘change’.  Professor Bogdanor gave the example of fixed-term Parliaments, which, contrary to Coalition rhetoric, he argued could serve primarily to further insulate Parliament from public control. Disjunction between the functioning of the political system and the public will clearly raises concerns.  It is certainly an area for further debate and possibly a compelling argument for change.

The transformed nature of the party system was also highlighted by both Professors as a trigger for electoral reform.  Supporting Professor Wilson’s assertions about New Zealand, Professor Bogdanor argued that the political system in Britain is no longer two- but now multi-party dominated.  A changed reality of multiple parties and a more fractured vote dictates that hung parliaments and coalition government are likely to become the norm.  Reform appears inevitable; if not electoral then procedural.  As Professor Wilson explained with obvious high regard, the cabinet manual (a guide to central government decision making and the constitution) in New Zealand has become the most authoritative tool in the complex world of multi-party government.  This practical model of transparent government is precisely the type that can usefully be applied to the changing face of UK politics.

As Professor Wilson put it, for both the UK and New Zealand, change is not so much ‘in the air’ but an established feature in the constitutional landscape.