MMP strategy and the big parties: Self-interest, hypocrisy and anti-democracy

National: Self-interest

In the last few days, many have noted National’s blatant self-interest in ignoring the Electoral Commission and maintaining the MMP status quo. The Commission suggested lowering the threshold to 4% and removing the “coat-tailing” exception, but National refused to do so because they wanted to continue having cups of tea with John Banks, Peter Dunne and (if needs be) Colin Craig. And now their chickens are coming home to roost with the Internet Mana strategic alliance. (In theory, the Conservatives and ACT could follow suit – but I’d argue there’s less common ground between Jamie Whyte and Colin Craig than between Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira)

Labour: Hypocrisy

Certain Labour members (edit: though not Louisa Wall) are taking a far more critical view of coat-tailing and strategic use thereof. Many have (rightly) criticised Labour for being anti-strategic, anti-small-parties and anti-anyone-further-left-than-them. Some have also (wrongly) suggested they’re hypocrites for not consistently criticising “coat-tailers” on the left and right. In fact, they are consistently criticising coat-tailers – condemning both Epsom and the Internet Mana alliance as “rort[s] of the system,” “ruse[s]” and “scam[s],” and proposing to get rid of the rule that allows them.

So they’re not being inconsistent. But they are being hypocritical, by condemning coat-tailers in the first place – for at least four reasons.

Firstly, because until Jim Anderton retired, they happily let him win Wigram for another party, and received him and any coat-tail buddies he could bring with him into the Clark governments.

They’ll no doubt say the difference is voters “genuinely liked” Jim Anderton (and their ex-buddy Peter Dunne), whereas Epsom voters only vote for the ACT candidate because they want to see his party represented. Perhaps this is true. But under First Past the Post, millions of voters across the country voted for Labour candidates not because they liked the candidate, but because they wanted to see the party represented. And still under MMP, many Green/Mana/etc supporters vote for Labour local candidates because they prefer a Labour local MP to the only other realistic alternative.

So they’re also hypocritical because they’re happy for Labour voters in Wigram or Green voters in Wellington Central to vote strategically for another party’s candidate, but not National voters in Epsom (or Labour voters in Te Tai Tokerau, for that matter).

Thirdly, they’re hypocritical because they call the “cup of tea” strategy a “rort” and in the very same press release endorse their own “reverse cup of tea” strategy: Labour voters voting for National’s Paul Goldsmith in Epsom. The only way this can possibly be ethically coherent is if they see all local seats as “rightfully” belonging to the same party that won the most party votes in that electorate (ie, always either National or Labour)… but in that case they’d have to give up most of their 22 electorate seats from the last election (some examples). And, of course, it would be pointless having a two-tick system if that was how it worked.

Lastly, they’re hypocritical because what is a political party but a strategic alliance of disparate factions and individuals, with some common purposes, banding together to pursue those purposes in elections and government? There’s at least as much diversity of views within Labour or National as there is between the Internet Party and Mana, and considerably more in-fighting (so far). But Labour have inherited a respectable and safe “major party” status that will never be described as an unholy “rort,” due the historical accident of being descended from a party that once represented the labour movement. This means that by condemning Internet Mana, they’re condemning a “sin” they’re not “tempted” by. Like National but unlike anyone else, they’ve never had to work doubly-hard for each vote, by first convincing potential voters a vote for them won’t be wasted. They’ve never had to resort to creative MMP strategies to provide this assurance. Blinding themselves to the privilege the system gives them, they blame the parties the system doesn’t privilege for taking the opportunities available to them.

Fixing the real problem

These days, Anderton is representing a dead fake building instead of Wigram, and Dunne is serving casinos instead of Clark… there’s no small parties left Labour actually likes. So, very nobly, they’re proposing to enact the Electoral Commission’s suggestions if elected.

But these high-minded condemnations and proposed solutions misdiagnose the problem entirely. The problem is that the threshold built into our MMP system stops it being truly proportional. It stacks the system against small and new parties, threatening to waste their votes and making them work far harder for them… thus creating the need and incentive for the so-called “rort” strategies.

That won’t change by getting rid of the coat-tailing exception, or even by lowering the threshold from 5% to 4%. We’d still have small parties banding together – only they’d be doing it to get across the 5% (or 4%) threshold, like the original Alliance. And we’d still have artificially skewed results – like the Labour voters who vote NZ First to make sure they get above 5% (or 4%), or the voters who shy away from small parties because they’re worried they won’t reach 5% (or 4%), often leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The only way to stop disadvantaging small parties and incentivising “dodgy deals” is something neither National, Labour or the Electoral Commission suggest, but the most evidence-based/least reactionary submittersinternational experts and bloggers across the political spectrum do: make MMP fully and straightforwardly proportional, by eradicating the threshold system that causes these problems in the first place. 1% of the votes, 1% of the seats – end of story. No need for the controversial coat-tailing exception, nobody’s vote robbed of effect because the party wasn’t big enough, and no need for creative strategies to negotiate coat-tailing versus wastage.

The Electoral Commission acknowledge that lowering or abolishing the threshold “would be a solution more consistent with the principle of proportionality that underpins the MMP system”… the only reason they won’t do it is because of a fear of a “proliferation of small parties.” Yes; you read that right; a supposedly independent commission are biased towards large parties, considering them “safer” than small parties; even though there’s no evidence high thresholds or few parties brings stability. And, of course, both big parties agree with them – neither of them suggest lowering the threshold below 4%.

The stupid thing is, at the moment we do have a proliferation of small parties; but we also have a proliferation of the strategies Labour condemns, because that’s basically the only way small and new parties can get in. If the Electoral Commission get their way, there may be less opportunities for small parties and their strategies, but (as they admit!) this would come at the cost of true proportionality. Is this anti-democratic knee-jerk response and anti-proportional threshold rule really worth it?


  1. Pingback: I’m (tentatively) happy about Internet Mana | Cut Your Hair
  2. seanjm72

    i think ACT are going to be the biggest losers here on the back of Banks as well. Key is going to have to do that deal with the COnservatives becasue there numbers are better and he cant risk being the biggest party but unable to form a Government. The big issue is what the hell a Conservative – National Government would get up to …imagine being represented by Colin Craig on the world stage !?!?


    • calebmorgan

      I think Key will only do a deal with them if he really has to. I don’t know whether to hope it happens or not (I shudder to think of them in government, and from a purely Machiavellian perspective it’s always nice when an opponent’s votes is wasted… but my ideas on democracy suggest they deserve representation and nobody’s vote should be wasted, and a deal would mean the election’s going to be close instead of a National landslide).

      I suspect whether or not they do get representation this time or next time, they’ll eventually go the way of the Christian Coalition, Christian Heritage, Christian Democrats/Future NZ, United, Kiwi Party, Pacific Party, Destiny, Family Party, etc… or the way of United Future if a coat-tailing agreement survives.


  3. mikesh

    Agreed. Though it could be argued that a threshold keeps out parties which, due to too little support, would be ineffectual in parliament. One compromise would be a floating threshold determined by either the highest (or lowest) polling party to benefit from the coat tails rule. For example, in 2008 ACT’s 3.6% of the vote would be deemed to be the threshold for that election as ACT was the highest scoring party benefitting from the the coat tails rule. But in that case NZ First, which scored more than 3.6% would also have received a half a dozen seats. If, on the other hand, we decided that the lowest polling party to gain a seat should determine the threshold then the threshold would robably remain at zero for as long as Peter Dunne continued to retain Ohariu.


    • calebmorgan

      I quite like that idea! It gets rid of the 2008 ACT vs NZ First injustice produced by the status quo, as well as the reversed (and almost as unfair) injustice that would have happened if the Electoral Commission’s alternative was in place. Not that I like either party (nor the Conservatives) of course, but I wouldn’t want to deny to my opponents what I want for the parties I support (ie a fair shot at representation). (Also, the National and Labour back-benchers who get into Parliament instead of the parties whose votes are wasted aren’t really any better)

      I’d still favour getting rid of the threshold, but I’d be reasonably happy with your suggested compromise.


  4. calebmorgan

    Tim Selwyn offers similar (but much more concise) criticisms of Labour, and some very thought-provoking suggestions about how to change the system – his idea involves multi-member electorates, to allow for every candidate being accountable to an electorate, while maintaining proportional representation. He also suggests various ways for ensuring pluralism based on language, gender and age.


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