The result of a British referendum on its electoral system shows how remarkable it was that New Zealand adopted MMP – and how much referendums are influenced by the mood of the moment. British voters have chosen to retain first past the post by 68 per cent to 32 per cent for a proposal called the Alternative Vote.
The result is devastating for electoral reform in Britain, burying the subject for another generation in the view of most commentators, and immediately devastating for Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats. The referendum was their main purpose in joining a coalition with the Conservatives.
Over the past year the Liberal Democrats have had to reverse their pre-election positions on several issues and disappoint their supporters on many others as the Coalition has grappled with Labour’s legacy of public spending. The party and its once-celebrated leader, Nick Clegg, have become so unpopular the party is now in a bind. It is unlikely to pull out of the Coalition and precipitate a new election. It would fare as badly as it did in the local elections held in conjunction with the referendum, where it lost half its seats.
The arguments for electoral reform were familiar to New Zealanders. A two-party choice no longer satisfies nearly all voters as it did a generation ago. Up to 25 per cent of voters are supporting other parties, but the system is not translating their votes into the same proportion of seats in Parliament.