Election results: disappointment and anger
After the last election I wrote a blog entitled I was wrong. This time I was right, but I’m not happy about that, because what I was right about was basically that the polls would be pretty accurate.
I’m expecting special votes will be slightly favourable to the Greens and/or Labour at the expense of National, but it won’t be enough to change the basic configurations and possibilities.
So the result is about what we could have expected from recent polls and past polling accuracy. But of course this is a big disappointment for me and everyone who leans to the left, especially because slightly-less-recent polls were more positive for Labour vs. National. Those polls got our hopes up that we would have government change.
The main thing I’m devastated about is the Māori party being driven out of government, and I mainly blame Labour for that. Two kaupapa Māori parties have been driven out of Parliament in the last two elections. Of course, this is partly because of their decisions to sit at tables with rich white men. But it’s also partly because they’ve been taken out by their political opponents. I know that’s politics (and Te Ururoa himself helped defeat Hone last election), but it’s sad. The Māori party were an effective voice for Māori and for justice, and they held the major parties to account on Te Tiriti, which needs to happen. They were the best part of the National-led government and they would have been a good part of a Labour-led government.
Once again I’m angry at the undemocraticness of the 5% threshold for representation. The thousands of party votes TOP and Māori received mean those parties deserve a few seats between them: those party votes should be worth as much as party votes for the big parties. But the threshold (and their failure to qualify for the local-seat exemption) blocks those parties from getting those seats, because of the Electoral Commission’s undemocratic fear of a “proliferation of small parties” with extremist views. And yet ACT survives again because they & National use the local vote to their advantage.
The incoming government: hopes and fears
We don’t know yet what the government will look like, except that it will be some combination of just the four big parties (National has already cast David Seymour aside). While a Labour-NZ First-Green govt is technically possible, it would be a bit of a poisoned chalice for Labour and the Greens: firstly because a lot of people would (rightly or wrongly) consider this government illegitimate, and secondly because they’d have to work with Winston Peters. A National-Green government is also technically possible, but National would have to give some pretty enormous concessions for the Greens to decide the situation has changed and they’re now willing to risk electoral suicide by working with National.
On the whole, I’d be extremely surprised if it doesn’t turn out to be National-NZ First.1 We’ll have to wait and see what a National-NZ First government will look like. We’ll get some clues with coalition negotiations, and find out the rest over the next three long years.
They’re both terrible parties, so their government could be doubly terrible. But my hope is that since they’re terrible in different ways, they could somewhat cancel out each other’s terribleness. E.g. National are too committed to globalisation (for the sake of capitalism) to go too far in appeasing Winnie’s anti-immigrant sentiments. And NZ First are far more economically left-leaning than National,2 so they could hopefully stop National from going too far on neoliberalism. A bunch of things that were passed over the last nine years by National, ACT and Peter Dunne were opposed by NZ First. There is precedent for NZ First holding National to account on its extreme capitalism, such as in the 90s when the minimum wage was not increased during the whole term of the Bolger government until NZ First forced them to increase it in 1997. So I think there is some hope that this government will be not as bad as the government over the last three terms has been.
Secondly, there’s some hope that private members’ bills from the left will be taken over the line by NZ First. For example, it’s possible that a zero carbon by 2050 law could be passed this term.
Thirdly, there’s hope in the way the Overton window has shifted slightly leftward during this election campaign. Earlier on, it looked like it was shifting in a worrying immigrant-scapegoating direction, but the Greens repented of their immigration stance, Labour toned theirs down, National didn’t join in,3 and NZ First somewhat fizzled. The political conversation became more about issues that matter: poverty, homelessness, housing unaffordability, and river water quality (sadly, climate change not enough).
And I think there is some hope that this government will do at least something on these issues. Under Key, National’s line on these issues was basically “there’s no issue”, but under English it’s more like “there is an issue and we’ve got it under control”—not a dramatic difference but an important one. And there are some signs National are starting to actually act on some of these issues. For example, they’ve done some encouraging Housing First experiments in Hamilton and Auckland and it would be great if they made this nationwide.4 And in Paddy Gower’s debate, English famously committed to lifting 100,000 kids out of poverty (even if they have been conveniently vague on what poverty measure he’s using). If this happens, great. If not, it’s something to hold them to account for.5
My biggest fear is that NZ First will push National to revive its policy to abolish the Māori seats. It’s still their policy to do to this eventually, but it’s on hold because “now is not the right time” (translation: we have a government arrangement with the Māori party). Bill English has already said this won’t happen, and I don’t want to believe that he’d do it. He’s seemed quite different to Don Brash on te Tiriti and te ao Māori (and on basic human decency), but Bill English has disappointed me quite a bit over the last few months.
Last but not least, I also have hope that there will be a strong Labour-Green government in three years time. Hopefully Labour has got its act together more by then and is more Corbynite than it is now.
- Though Winnie will milk his technical queenmaker powers to gain maximum concessions out of National. ↑
- I see NZ First as roughly 2/3 Trump and 1/3 Sanders. ↑
- Not out of concern for immigrants so much as concern for immigrants’ low-wage employers, in my opinion. ↑
- Housing First is quite a radical reversal of the currently dominant mindset of having a bunch of conditions and sanctions in exchange for any welfare support. It gives an unconditional roof over the head first. Any state involvement in trying to change people’s lives comes after this, and isn’t a condition for having a roof over the head. And it works – it basically eliminates rough sleeping. ↑
- However, a third option is probably more likely: they’ll find a measure that allows them to say that they’ve met their target, even though the opposition and pretty much everyone else will say it hasn’t happened. They’ll continue to insist they’re right next election, as they did with the 11 billion dollar hole this time. ↑
The Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan has come out swinging against the polls, which unanimously report his party polling nowhere near the 5% threshold. He basically says they’re fake news because they (mostly) only poll landlines. He predicts TOP will actually get between 5% and 10% of the party vote and make it into Parliament.
TOP pride themselves on being an evidence-based party. So it behooves us to examine the evidence behind Gareth Morgan’s suggestion that TOP have a real chance of winning representation in Saturday’s election.
Question: Has any party ever achieved what TOP is trying to achieve?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Only one party has ever won representation under MMP in New Zealand without a sitting electorate MP from a sitting party. That sole exception is ACT, who had several prominent former Labour and National cabinet ministers. That happened in the first MMP election, when everyone and their mum voted minor party.
Not many parties have won representation under MMP in New Zealand, whether through the 5% threshold or local seats. Only one MP has ever won representation for a party that didn’t have an MP elected in 1996 for one party or another: Hone Harawira, for Mana.
Most of the small parties that have won representation have done so via a local seat (Māori, Mana, Progressive, United, ACT, and NZ First have all coat-tailed in). Only 7 parties have ever reached 5%: National, Labour, the Greens, NZ First, ACT, the Alliance, and United Future. The last three have all failed more times than they’ve succeeded and have basically shriveled away to nothing (or, worse, to David Seymour). Scores of parties have failed to reach 5% OR a local seat: the Conservatives, Christian Heritage/Coalition, Legalise Cannabis, Destiny, Outdoor Recreation, Future, etc.
Question: Does the polling suggest TOP have a chance of reaching the 5% threshold?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No. TOP have never exceeded 2.5%—half the threshold—in either the Radio NZ or the Stuff poll of polls. From information publicly available, their highest poll results are 3% and 3.5%—both on polls leaked from Labour’s internal polling. Most polls have had TOP between 1% and 2%. And their polling isn’t improving—if anything, it’s getting worse.
Question: Might the polling be wrong?
Short answer: Anything is possible, but TOP reaching 5% would require polling error on an unprecedented scale.
Long answer: It’s possible that the polls are wrong. It’s difficult to poll correctly and some error is inevitable. In 2014, in the week leading up to the election, NZ First polled 6.6% on Fairfax-Ipsos (they actually got 8.66%), the Greens polled 14.4% on 3 News-Reid Research (they actually got 10.7%), and the Conservatives polled 3.3% on Herald-Digipoll (they actually got 3.97%).
But polling averages and patterns are more reliable than individual polls. And even the famous polling underestimations of Brexit and Trump were basically within the margins of error. Both outcomes were considered less likely than the alternative but not out of the question. TOP cracking 5% would be way beyond the margin of error and completely bizarre.
Even with the errors cited above, polling averages in NZ in 2014 were reasonably close to the final results. The issue of many polls being landline-based is well-known, but also well-known to the polling companies themselves, and they have ways to correct for landline misrepresentation (and their relative accuracy last election shows they do pretty well at it). No party shot up to more than double its polling average on election day. If this happened for TOP, it would be polling error on an unprecedented scale.
Question: NZ First unexpectedly came back in 2011; could TOP do something like that?
Short answer: This situation isn’t comparable to that.
Long answer: In 2011, NZ First shot up in the polls after Winston capitalised on the Teapot Tapes scandal. Before TeapotGate, NZ First were polling only a bit better than what TOP are polling now. After TeapotGate, their numbers shot up. In the last set of polls before the election, they were above 4% in every poll except Reid Research (generally an inaccurate poll), and at 6.5% on Roy Morgan. They actually got 6.59%. It’s also worth remembering that NZ First were an established party who have never polled below 4% in any election since MMP begam.
There is no indication of any one-off event that’s going to shoot TOP up in the polls. (In fact, the Gareth Morgan Attention Meter has been at dangerously low levels for weeks and has now dropped to zero.) It’s still theoretically possible that such an event could happen in the next four days, but TOP would have to rise further and faster than NZ First did to crack 5%.
Question: Could TOP win a local seat?
Short answer: There is no evidence to suggest they will come close to winning any local seat. Morgan might have had a chance, but he isn’t standing in a local seat.
Long answer: In a “major campaign shift” after voting already began, TOP have started pleading for local votes in 13 seats, as an alternative route to representation as the hope of reaching 5% slips away. But it’s too little, too late. Winning a local seat when you’re not one of the big two parties is extremely difficult. It takes a concerted effort, not a last-minute plea for Grant Robertson’s votes.
Anyway, there’s no polling evidence (or any evidence) indicating that any TOP candidate has any hope of winning any local seat.
This is a good time to remind ourselves that no new party has ever won a local seat (or any seat) without a sitting MP or some high-profile former cabinet ministers. Gareth Morgan could have been the first exception to this, because he has a high profile and a lot of resources. But for some reason he declined to stand in a local seat—he’s a list-only candidate.
Question: Is this a good year for a minor party to achieve the never-before-achieved?
Short Answer: No—on current polling this will be the worst MMP election ever for minor parties.
Long answer: No, this is not a good year for a minor party to try to achieve the never-before-achieved. Before Jacinda took over, it might have been. But now, it’s looking like the worst ever year for minor parties since MMP began. On the latest figures, only about 16.5% of party votes will go to minor parties:
Question: Couldn’t a vote of support for TOP’s policies still help those policies come to fruition, even if TOP don’t win representation?
Short answer: Maybe, but you’d have to really prefer TOP’s policies to any other party’s policies for this vote of support to pass cost-benefit analysis.
Long answer: Sure. This could be the case—indirectly, if a decent party vote makes other other parties more likely to adopt TOP’s policies, or makes TOP more likely to come back next time with a more evidence-based electoral strategy. If you do the Spinoff’s Policy tool, you may find that you greatly prefer TOP’s policies to anyone else’s policies.
If you think TOP’s policies are so much better than the policies of any other party that you’d do more good by giving a symbolic vote of support to TOP’s policies than by helping your second-favourite party maximise their representation, then by all means vote TOP.
Or if you want to do a protest vote against the six parties that actually will get representation, by all means vote TOP.
Or if (for whatever reason) you can’t morally justify voting for any of the six parties that will actually get representation, by all means vote TOP.
Or if you believe it’s your civic duty to vote for your favourite party, strategy be damned (and if your favourite party is TOP), by all means vote TOP.
I’m sure there are plenty of reasons you might want to vote TOP. But if you think they have a realistic chance of getting into Parliament, you’ve left evidence behind. TOP-esque policies are more likely to actually be implemented in the next three years by the Greens, which is one reason I’ve party voted Green.
As for you, you should do what you want with your vote, even if it’s a principled unstrategic vote or a protest vote. I just don’t want people voting under false misconceptions. I wrote this blog because I believe “TOP have a realistic chance of winning representation this election” is a false misconception, according to the evidence available to us.
Question: So what should TOP do if they want to get into Parliament?
Short answer: Campaign for electoral reform and be more tactical next time.
Long answer: Here I’m switching into my opinion on effective strategy rather than sticking to the evidence. But for what it’s worth, here’s my opinion:
TOP should devote their considerable resources for the next 3/6/9/12/15 years to campaigning to make our electoral system more democratic. For example, by campaigning to lower the blatantly anti-democratic 5% threshold and/or introduce instant run-off voting for local seats and sub-threshold party votes. This would remove the spectre of “vote wastage” that places a near-insurmountable burden on new and small parties like TOP. It would be good for them and good for us. And it worked for Rod Donald with campaigning for MMP.
Next election, if TOP want to run again, they should do extensive research working out which local seat would be most open to electing Gareth Morgan as their local candidate. And they should stand him there. They should door-knock this electorate like crazy, poll it heavily, and widely publicise any positive poll result all around the country to build the impression that they’re a safe party vote, due to coat-tailing. By doing this they could help make it a reality.
Most people intending to vote Labour, Green, TOP, Māori, or Mana probably have a reasonably similar idea of what we want our government to look like: more action on social justice and the environment, for example.
This post is an appeal to all those people to party-vote Green as the best choice for the government and Parliament you want to see—for the next three years and beyond.
(By the way, I’m not a Green loyalist: In previous elections I’ve party-voted Internet Mana, Mana, Green, and United Future.)
Here are my reasons:
- The Greens have the best and clearest policy on the biggest issues that matter the most: halting climate change and ending poverty (though TOP, Māori, and Mana probably have better policy in some areas). Labour are pinching Green policies left right and centre, which is a good thing. In government, the Greens would lead and hopefully Ardern would follow.
- The Greens need us. Based on the polling info we have at the moment, I’d say it’s at least 80% likely they’ll get back in, but it’s not certain—they need our votes. In contrast, Labour don’t need our votes, Māori and Mana need electorate votes more than party votes (though Marama Fox needs party votes so the Māori party would be my second choice), and TOP won’t get in, unless the polls are wrong to an unprecedented extent.
- A vote for Green is a vote for an Ardern-led govt. But it’s a vote for more Green people & influence as part of her coalition, rather than more Labour people & influence as part of her coalition (or more NZ First people & influence…). Looking at the party lists, numbers 7,8,9,10+ on the Green list would be more effective advocates for the kind of government we want to see than numbers 44,48,52,56 or whatever on Labour’s.
- Even if you prefer Labour to the Greens, do you prefer them 9x as much? They’re currently projected to get 9x as many seats. When your favourite party is surging so much, why not help their junior partners out a bit?
- If the Greens underperform their polling a bit, they could go below 5%, and thousands of votes for an Ardern-led govt would be wasted. Depending on other results, that could be the difference between a Labour-led government and a National-led government. If Labour underperform their polling a bit, it would certainly affect things, but it wouldn’t have as significant an effect as the Greens missing out.
- A Labour govt without the Greens (and preferably the Māori party) keeping them honest would disappoint most of us. Labour have a long history of disappointing the left. They’ve also achieved stuff for the left, but they do it when they’re pushed from the left, not when they’re pushed from the right. The exact same thing is true if you substitute the word “Māori” for “the left”.
- Most important for me: A vote for Green this year is a massive vote of support for Metiria Turei and for beneficiaries, i.e. the poor, i.e. Jesus. (And imagine if it went down in history that when a party stood up for the poor in that way they were driven out of Parliament. I’d rather it go down in history that they did take a hit because of benny-hatred and Jacindamania, but they survived, formed part of the government, and helped lead it to a more compassionate policy for the poor.)
PS: The images at the start are from the We Are Beneficiaries group on Facebook.
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)
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.
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 submitters, international 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?