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Shane Frith: Lessons from New Zealand on the dangers of hung parliaments, coalitions and PR

Shane Frith Shane Frith is director of the classical-liberal think-tank Progressive Vision. He has worked for Conservative MPs in the UK and National Party MPs in his native New Zealand.  He is a former chairman of the International Young Democrat Union, linking young people involved in centre-right political parties worldwide, including the Conservative Party.

Let me tell you a story… The leader of a minor party gets a rare opportunity to debate alongside the leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties.  As the two major party leaders spend most of their time attacking each other, the minor party leader is unscathed and is permitted to make reasonable sounding statements.  The minor party leader is then universally declared the winner of the debate. 

Moreover, when a group of “undecided” voters are asked to rate the performances, the resulting “worm” graphic consistently trends upwards when the minor party leader speaks (he used the words “common sense” a lot).  At the resulting election the minor party has the balance of power and supports the continuation of a Labour led government.  Britain in 2010?  No – New Zealand in 2002, if you allow for the licence in calling New Zealand's National Party the Conservative Party.

Compounding my déjà vu is the possibility of the introduction of proportional representation, which New Zealand adopted in 1996 following a referendum in 1993.  The experience of coalition politics and PR in my native land offers interesting insights into Britain’s possible future.   Most warn of the dangers of PR and the consequences for all parties.  Even the Liberal Democrats (please, never call them “The Liberals”) should take heed of these lessons: the minor party in 2002 was all but wiped out at the next election as a consequence of them having to take real decisions and their lack of preparedness for office. 

Moreover, an earlier minor party which held the balance of power in 1996 split in two after a year in coalition with National, with one side supporting the continued National Party led government – and neither half of this party is represented in Parliament today.  PR has given birth to, but then destroyed, populist parties of the centre. The Lib Dems should be careful what they wish for!

The first thing Britain would notice with coalition politics is the lack of transparency.  Note Nick Clegg’s reluctance to indicate which party he would prefer to support.  I’m sure he has a preference, so why won’t he say?  In 1996 the balance of power was held by an anti-immigration party (New Zealand First) which proceeded to hold simultaneous negotiations with both the National and Labour parties. 

After over a month of negotiations the New Zealnd First leader addressed the nation live on television and at the end of a long speech announced that he would support the National-led government.  Many, including myself, thought it would be impossible for him to do this and many of his supporters felt betrayed.  The deciding factor appeared to not rest on any key policy, more on the National Party’s willingness to offer him the position of Treasurer (Chancellor of the Exchequer).  A win for vanity and the allure of ministerial limousines.

As for those who argue that we should “love bomb” the Lib Dems and not attack them too hard, I say no. The election is a competition of ideals and policies which the party should prosecute fully.  If, once all the votes are counted, a hung parliament results, the horse trading will begin in earnest.  There is nothing to be gained in pulling punches and “agreeing with Nick”.  I’ve seen politicians call each other worse things than “desperate” before an election, only to become firm allies once the election is over, the deals are done and baubles of office shared out.

Proportional representation leads to policies negotiated in smoke-free rooms, not debated in public.  Deals are done in the interests of the electoral consequences of the coalition, not the best interests of the nation.  PR would have made the vital reforms of the 1980s and 1990s in both Britain and New Zealand impossible.  Failure to robustly address Britain’s debt will result in a continued long decline in Britain’s relative prosperity. Failure to seriously reform broken health and education systems will result in unnecessary deaths and failed children.  The tough measures required to achieve this would be unlikely to occur when coalition politics put party interest ahead of the nation’s interests.

Despite this, if the election results in a hung parliament with the Lib Dems holding the balance of power, I believe it is vital the Conservatives form a government with the Lib Dems. This will require agreeing to a referendum on PR, but the alternative is a Lib Dem/Labour government enacting a referendum on PR. By forming a coalition with the Lib Dems, the Conservative Party will have a unique opportunity to influence the culture of this party. This gives the hope of bringing the Lib Dems back to their liberal roots and building the hopes of shifting the center of political gravity in Britain away from the socialism we currently endure.

The volcano cloud was one unfortunate reminder of home this week – I hope that next month doesn’t produce the nightmare of coalition politics and proportional representation.


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