Former Labour MPs Darren Hughes and Sir Michael Cullen

Ten years ago, it looked like Labour MP, Darren Hughes political career was over.

He had resigned from Parliament after Police began to investigate a complaint of a sexual nature against him.

The Police dismissed the complaint, but Hughes had ended what many considered a career that had considerable promise.

He laid low and quietly went to the United Kingdom, where he became the Chief Executive of Britain’s Electoral Reform Society, a remarkable testament to a former Labour MP who had been in the New Zealand Parliament only nine years.

Now in a political version of “coals to Newcastle,” Hughes is donkey-deep in British politics bringing his New Zealand experience to the British campaign to introduce proportional representation into the “Mother of All Parliaments.”

It is also a measure of how much the British are beginning to look to New Zealand for political and constitutional reform.

For example, the idea of a Cabinet Manual offering guidance on issues like coalition government formation was a New Zealand innovation.

In 2010, Britain not only sent its then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, to learn how we did things but ultimately imported the New Zealand Cabinet manual and adapted it to form Britain’s first Cabinet Manual.

Sir Gus told a House of Commons Select Committee in 2011 that “although we would like to take the credit, this was not a new idea.”

Hughes is now temporarily back in New Zealand, and he says Jacinda Ardern’s global star power is focussing even more attention on how we became the first settler Commonwealth country to adopt a pure proportional representation system.

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People have really taken notice; she gets a lot of coverage, and that means people who are interested in politics say, well, what’s going on down there?” he said.

“And then that opens up the conversation about the move to MMP a quarter of a century ago and the difference in style that has brought to our politics.

“So I think having familiar examples is very important to our campaign.

“And so so being able to point to countries which people have an overwhelmingly favourable image of, like New Zealand, is really crucial to normalizing a system where seats match votes.”

Of course, trying to overturn a system that has placed the relationship between an MP and their constituency at its heart for at least two hundred years is a huge challenge.

“It’s it’s a hard task because effectively it’s asking the political industry to regulate itself and reform itself, which is always tricky,” he said.

“One thing I’ve certainly learned in this job is why you have independent regulators because industries are very good at running themselves in the sense of setting the rules.

“And Parliament normally does that.

“And so by the time you come to who regulates Parliament, it becomes

Parliamentarians themselves.

“The way the boundaries are drawn, the way the donations are handled, or the way the voting system is done, it’s a hard task.

“And I think the bright lights that are there are the fact that millions of people in the UK already use Proportional Representation (PR) for some elections.

“So everyone in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, London mayoralty system is all set up around PR.

“So it’s not kind of an unusual system or a scary y system.

“It’s something people are familiar with but trying to get it onto the political agenda, not an easy task, but the kind of problems don’t go away.

“And so our task is to link public policy failure to an ineffective electoral system.”

In Britain (as in New Zealand), one of the big arguments against PR is that it will often deliver an ambiguous election result and, therefore, potentially, an unstable Government,

But from 2010 to 2019, under First Past the Post, Britain ended up with a series of coalition or minority Governments.

The one thing that first past the post says about itself is that it always delivers clear, decisive results, so voters know who to blame or reward at election time,” said Hughes.

“But really, in the last few elections with a hung parliament; a  coalition government and a minority government Britain has had the worst of all worlds, which is seen as seats not matching votes in the House of Commons, but then the outcome not being decisive either.

“So it’s really a system that has stopped working.”

But surely the vote here last election to give Labour a clear majority and to throw NZ First out was a vote for the Government party to have a clear majority; an indication that New Zealand voters do not want minor parties to wag the tail of the major party dogs?

But Hughes believes MMP has fundamentally changed New Zealand’s political culture.

It’s very unusual to achieve 50 per cent of the vote, and I think that has  only happened four times since 1938 when our kind of modern two-party politics of National and Labour became the dominant force,” he said.

“I think, just those major events the isolated terrorist attack; but also the long-running covid response did shore up Labour in an unusual way.

“But what’s reassuring, I guess, from a democracy point of view is that the people at the top of the government are very conscious of the fact that this is an unusual situation and that they don’t want to be seen as being too strong, whereas under first past the post, demonstrating strength, whether had a one-seat majority or a 15 seat majority was always to act as though you had a landslide win.

And Hughes has noticed other changes in New Zealand’s political culture.

If you look at National during the John Key years, there did seem to be very much an emphasis on bringing in more of a diverse caucus,” he said.

“And then certainly Maori members are now no longer just in one party.

“They’re there in all parties, and that’s because every vote counts no matter where you live.

“So it puts it puts a market emphasis or market incentive on political parties to try to recruit more people, trying to recruit a wider range of candidates to form their caucus rather than kind of isolating people into a particular party.”

Hughes argues that one of the disadvantages of first-past-the-post is that it tends to select MPs based on where they live. 

Thus Labour MPs in Britain come from working-class seats; Conservatives from more affluent seats. But it is not a system that allows for mavericks or MPs who don’t quite fit those rigid demographic definitions.

If you look at National’s example with Chris Finlayson and Labour’s example with Ayesha Verrall, you have very highly intelligent, skilled people who have been able to come into parliament and work directly and immediately on tough public policy issues because of their skills in a way that perhaps first past the post, where your only entry into parliament is to get a single member seat at a geographic level, might not have done so,” he said.

“Diversity and skills, I think, are the two extra strengths that PR brings.”

But for all that, Hughes also believes that there are some things the UK could teach New Zealand.

Ironically one is based on the independence of an Ordinary Member of Parliament, which, in part, stems from them holding a constituency seat and being accountable to their electors ahead of anybody else.

I think parliament asserting its identity as an institution in its own right is actually a very, very encouraging sign and a very healthy sign in terms of separating out its function from the from the fact that some of its members are in the executive,” he said.

“And I think one of the things that really struck me in the UK is that MPs who are part of the governing party don’t describe themselves as part of the government.

“The government means people who are ministers and MPs say, look, I’m very loyal to my party, but I’m not part of the government; I’m a parliamentarian representing these people.”

Hughes is happy to reinforce what has been an almost glacial shift, but a shift nonetheless,  in our Parliament’s Standing Orders to give more space to ordinary MPs.

“I think the more that can be done to increase the independence of Select Committees and make them a real tool of scrutiny is important, but also making sure there’s time for Parliament to be in the hands of its members in addition to the other function it has, which is to deliver the government of the day’s program.

I think getting that balance or maybe even out that balance more is very healthy and will only enhance people’s faith in  the political process if they can see that it’s more than just a government-run institution.”

Hughes is someone Labour listens to. He entered Parliament when the Clark Government was riding high, and his patron, in many ways, was a predecessor in his Otaki seat, Annette King.

But at a recent function hosted by Speaker Trevor Mallard, Labour’s former deputy Leader, Michael Cullen, suggested that Hughes had so much still to offer he ought to consider coming home.

Hughes demurred from answering that; what is clear is that his commitment to Parliamentary reform, whether it is in Britain or New Zealand, is total.

MPs and particularly voters might hope that Sir Michael eventually wins the argument.