Socialists and Trade Unionists Led the Fight for Electoral Reform in New Zealand

Before 1993, elections in New Zealand used a first-past-the-post system that marginalized the Left and helped unpopular governments keep a parliamentary majority. A broad campaign led by the labor movement and socialists took up the fight for democratic reform — and won.

An electoral reform activist poses with an MMP billboard in 1993. (John Nicholson / Alexander Turnbull Library)

By the late 1980s, New Zealand’s political system had entered a crisis. Thanks to an undemocratic electoral system, the NZ Labour Party and the center-right National Party shared a duopoly on power. In the words of Geoffrey Palmer, Labour prime minister from 1989 to 1990, the country had spent decades under “elected dictatorships.”

It was an apt description. Since 1951, no government had won a majority of the popular vote — including those which held an absolute majority in the House of Representatives, New Zealand’s unicameral legislature. This was caused by a combination of geographical electorates, each of which elected a single member, and an orthodox first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system. The only notable feature of New Zealand’s democracy was that it reserved four seats for Māori representatives, to be elected by a separate electoral roll, established in 1867.

This system regularly resulted in obviously undemocratic outcomes. In both the 1978 and 1981 elections, Robert Muldoon’s deeply unpopular National government held power, even though the Labour opposition won a larger share of the popular vote. Lacking any popular mandate, the Muldoon government used its majority to push through austerity policies, such as the 1982 general wage freeze.

Under this system, even successful minor parties struggled to break into Parliament. In 1978, the center-left Social Credit Party won over 16 percent of the popular vote but only won one seat out of 92. In 1981, the Social Credit Party raised their vote share to over 20 percent, gaining just one additional seat.

Despite being a party of government, Labour also found itself at a disadvantage. In the 1990 election — the last before New Zealand’s referendum on electoral reform — the Nationals won 69.1 percent the seats in Parliament despite only winning 47.9 percent of the vote. By contrast, Labour won 35.1 percent of the popular vote but only 29.9 percent of the seats. The Greens and the splinter New Labour Party won 6.9 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively. Despite receiving a combined 12.1 percent of the vote, these two new anti-neoliberal parties won no seats in the House of Representatives.

The Left Takes up the Fight for Proportional Representation

Such undemocratic results propelled the question of electoral reform into the national spotlight. However, it was Labour’s left faction and the Marxist-aligned Socialist Unity Party (SUP) that spearheaded the campaign to reform New Zealand’s democratic system. Labour Left and the SUP’s shared dominance in the trade union movement ensured that the campaign could draw on the power of organized workers.

The campaign also required the Left to develop new strategic thinking. Ken Douglas was the secretary of the Federation of Labour — the main trade union confederation — and the leader of SUP. As he argued, “If workers didn’t own the problems, they wouldn’t own the solutions.”

For Douglas, owning the problems meant recognizing that “Marxism does not simply rely on the failure of capitalism.” Instead, he argued that it was incumbent on socialists to develop a strategy for democratic transformation. Douglas emphasized the need for a strong workers’ movement and “the political importance of trade unions having longer term objectives rather than ‘just give us another handout.’”

The first step in the Left’s strategy was to merge the Federation of Labour with public sector unions to form a new Council of Trade Unions (CTU). While serving as its first secretary, Douglas reflected that the CTU marked the first attempt by the New Zealand labor movement to form structures that were neither “plant-based nor enterprise-based” but “industry-based.”

Emboldened by unity, the new Council of Trade Unions set its sights on broader political transformation. The first CTU conference passed an electoral policy stating that it “opposes an electoral system which allows a minority vote party to hold power.” Instead, the conference affirmed its commitment to “the principle of proportional representation.”

Geoffrey Palmer, a law professor turned Labour MP, joined the movement, adding experience and a voice in Parliament. A longtime proponent of electoral reform, in 1978, Palmer convinced a Labour Party congress to pass a remit calling for a royal commission investigating avenues for reform. In 1984, after Labour unseated Muldoon, Palmer became deputy PM and justice minister. One year later, the commission into democratic reform became a reality.

In 1987, Palmer’s commission returned a proposal for a West German–style electoral system called mixed-member proportional (MMP). Under MMP, voters may cast two votes: one for a local representative and the other for a political party. Consequently, the total number of seats in Parliament is divided between MPs who are elected to represent geographical electorates and MPs who are elected in accordance with the proportion of the vote their party receives. This means, for example, if you are a leftist living in an electorate with a strong conservative majority, your local candidate won’t be successful — but your second, party vote will ensure that you still have a say.

Importantly, electing a number of MPs on the basis of a proportionate vote makes it much easier for small parties to enter Parliament and gain a voice. Instead of needing to win 50 percent plus one vote in any given electorate (or, in a strict FPP system, a plurality of votes), small parties can enter Parliament if they break through a minimum threshold for representation. Depending on the specifics of the electoral system in question, this is usually under 10 percent of the vote.

Labour Hesitates

Despite the advantages this proposal would have guaranteed Labour, the Palmer government did not take further steps toward electoral reform. Like the National Party, Labour’s leadership was worried that moving away from FPP elections would end their duopoly on power and undermine their electoral success.

This meant that leadership of the campaign for democratic reform fell to the Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC). The ERC was a broad-based coalition which brought together the Socialist Unity Party, the Council of Trade Unions, and a host of other groups from across the political spectrum, as well as various church groups.

By 1990, the ERC’s campaigning had propelled the issue of electoral reform into the national political spotlight. Despite its breadth, as the campaign continued, the Left increasingly won hegemony within the coalition. Consequently, many ERC leaders were drawn from the ranks of Labour, the SUP, other left groups, and the trade unions. For example, the ERC chose Colin Clark — a onetime Maoist — as chairman after he retired as head of the main public service union.

The Left saw supporting democratic reform as a nonnegotiable principle. In March 1990, Marilyn Tucker, the acting general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party wrote in Tribune that “proportional voting is an important aspect of expanding democracy, and it is why the SUP fully backs the ERC’s campaign to hold an independent referendum.” Prominent figures on the left of the Labour Party held similar views.

At the same time, many leaders of the Left explained the fight for a better democratic system as a step toward socialism. For example, University of Waikato sociologist Paul Harris, wrote in the journal Socialist Politics that

this [Electoral Reform] Coalition will not give us socialism. But it could provide the basis for a radical and progressive transformation of our society. . . . Working together, recognizing the validity of each other’s positions, the working class, women’s, Māori and Green movements could collectively reconstruct our society as a decent and humane one. For that to occur, I would argue that proportional representation is an essential political precondition.

The First Referendum

As New Zealand entered the last decade of the twentieth century, the ERC’s campaign was in full swing, and was strengthened by the Royal Commission’s plans for an MMP electoral system. Although their leaderships opposed reform, the Labour and National parties backed a referendum on introducing proportional representation to be held in 1992.

The years leading up to the 1992 referendum also saw the introduction of sweeping neoliberal measures. After ousting Muldoon’s National government in 1984, David Lange’s Labour government accelerated austerity, privatization, and marketization. Finance minister Roger Douglas led this transformation with the full support of neoliberals within the Treasury.

Under the sway of “Rogernomics,” the Lange government privatized key assets like New Zealand Steel and land belonging to the NZ Forest Service while removing all agricultural subsidies and price and income controls. Labour also privatized and deregulated New Zealand’s publicly owned banks while corporatizing and marketizing the remaining state-owned services, including the post office, telecommunications, and Air New Zealand.

In the lead-up to the 1990 election, the National Party campaigned against this agenda on the promise of a “decent society.” However, after toppling Labour in 1991, the National Party finance minister Ruth Richardson introduced a budget so harsh that the media dubbed it “Ruthanasia.” It introduced user pays into the health care and education systems, slashed welfare benefits, and partially privatized state housing, leading to rent rises of up to three times the market rate. This amounted to a full-scale assault on the social democratic welfare system established in the 1930s.

Without this context, it’s impossible to understand the groundswell of support for democratic reform in the lead-up to the 1992 election. Brian Roper, author of The History of Democracy: A Marxist Perspective, spoke to Jacobin about this history. Roper explains popular support for reform as a product of “a very serious legitimation crisis for the state in Aotearoa [due to] the rapid and comprehensive implementation of neoliberalism between 1984 and 1993.” The National Party, he continues, was elected on a platform of “softening neoliberalism a little bit.” After betraying this promise, they reached “the lowest level of support for a governing political party recorded a New Zealand’s political history.”

This widespread frustration with politics as usual resulted in a sweeping win for the campaign for democratic reform. In the 1992 referendum, 85 percent of New Zealand voted in favor of changing the electoral system. The referendum also asked voters to choose among four possible voting systems, including MMP. MMP won 71 percent of the vote, ensuring a second referendum in July 1993 on the introduction of the new voting system.

A Victory for Democracy

The campaign against reform was more vicious in the lead-up to the 1993 vote. At one point, the unelected governor-general — constitutionally the Queen’s representative in New Zealand — warned she would use her “reserve powers” to dissolve Parliament and select a new prime minister if MMP was introduced.

Big business also backed the campaign to keep New Zealand’s FPP system, bankrolling an advertising-heavy campaign. Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe headed up the main group that backed FPP, which called itself the Campaign for Better Government. All together, the coalition against reform spent more on television advertising than the National and Labour parties combined.

Despite this, voters in the 1993 referendum backed introducing an MMP electoral system by 54 percent to 46 percent. Although the National Party won reelection that night, it was to be the last election contested according to FPP.

In 1996, New Zealand went to the polls under the MMP system for the first time. Just as electoral reform campaigners had hoped, the result was more representative, and the National Party was forced to negotiate a coalition. Likewise, when Labour returned to power in 1999, they were also compelled to form a coalition. This pattern repeated in 2008 and 2017, when the National and Labour parties took power in turns, each time at the head of a coalition. In 2020, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party bucked this trend by winning the highest vote share in a general election since 1951, allowing her to form New Zealand’s first majority government since the introduction of MMP.

In the lead-up to the 2008 election, the National Party promised to hold another nonbinding referendum on New Zealand’s electoral system, hoping to discredit MMP. Coinciding with the 2011 general election, this referendum only confirmed the popularity of MMP. Around 58 percent of voters chose to maintain the system, up 4 percent from the initial referendum eighteen years before.


Sam Huggard served as convener of the second campaign for MMP before becoming secretary of the NZ Council of Trade Unions from 2014 to 2019. He credits the campaign’s success to the fact that “we got going really early” in 2009 by drawing together “a coalition of people who are broadly happy with the system.” By the end of 2010, the campaign boasted a national organization with fourteen regional campaign networks.

Instead of defending MMP according to a “left-right framework,” the 2009–2011 Campaign for MMP emphasized the principle of democracy. This was important, as Huggard notes, because it stressed the “disenfranchisement of voters . . . in safe seats” under the old system. By appealing even to conservative voters, the campaign built a practical and popular coalition. The Campaign for MMP also ran a broad, volunteer-focused effort, with activities ranging from traditional canvassing and phone banking to a “24-hour Dungeons & Dragons fundraiser” held in Wellington.

This ecumenical, popular approach resembled the strategy adopted by the original Electoral Reform Coalition. By 2009–2011, however, the Left’s influence had declined. The Socialist Unity Party had dissolved, as had other leftist groups, including New Labour and Bill Andersen’s Socialist Party. Despite this, MMP enjoys continued support from the majority of the population, and from most of the Left.

Indeed, despite the overall decline of the Left, MMP has benefited progressives. Referring to the Green Party and the short-lived left-populist Mana Movement, Roper notes that

MMP has seemingly been better for the Left than FPP ever was. I am by no means an uncritical admirer, but MMP has helped ensure that we have always had a party or parties represented. I do think MMP is a qualitatively more democratic electoral system than FPP, which is why business tried to stop it.

Likewise, Douglas is optimistic that MMP may make it easier for a future socialist coalition to break beyond the impasse the Left found itself in during the 1990s.

While no viable democratic socialist party currently exists in New Zealand, MMP lowers the barriers that a future socialist left would need to face to enter Parliament. Rather than having to compete with the political establishment directly to win an electorate seat, passing the 5 percent threshold guarantees minor parties a minimum parliamentary group of six seats. It’s a much more democratic system, and it guarantees that when a socialist movement does emerge in New Zealand, it won’t be stymied by an antiquated and unrepresentative voting system.