Posts Tagged ‘FPP’

Competing electoral insurgencies, in Epsom and beyond

datePosted on 10:48, July 21st, 2011 by Lew

In this post I argue that ACT’s apparent willingness to undermine the MMP system that has kept them alive isn’t so much a death wish as a wish to be welcomed back into the National party as a faction, rather than a stand-alone party; to ensure influence from within rather than relying on influence without. I wrote most of this late at night and cobbled it together from several pieces I’ve had banging around a while with some more recent stuff appended, so you have my apologies if it’s a bit disjointed.

Fairfax political journalists Andrea Vance & John Hartevelt have a pretty sharp piece up, calling the ACT-National deal in Epsom a shameless power grab. I wrote about this topic a few days ago. Their analysis is pretty good, particularly the argument that National may have difficulty compartmentalising future ACT scandals away from National, having taken such direct responsibility for shielding ACT from the rigours of electoral democracy. They also make the point that I and many others have made about the dual exploitation-illustration of MMP’s flaws:

Double dealing and horse-trading are nothing new in the battle for political survival. Perversely, as we head towards a referendum, this naked and shameless power grab undermines the very system ACT relies on for survival. The ultimate irony is that Brash wants it replaced with the supplementary member system that would probably vanquish his party.

MMP, and particularly exploitation of the free-rider rule, is what has kept ACT alive since the 2005 election, when the party’s support dipped to its record low of 1.5%. Supplementary Member is the system that Brash personally supports, and although there is no official preference, this is widely regarded as being the system most preferable to most National party members and the wider ACT party also. SM, as proposed with a 90-30 electorate-list split, would indeed be worse for ACT as an independent party, requiring it to get something like 3% 2% of the party vote to gain a list seat, even if it continued to win an electorate. Leaving aside for a moment whether this is likely or not (ACT did, in its heyday, poll well), that’s a considerable disadvantage because National would no longer have such a good reason to throw ACT an electorate seat lifeline. National’s doing so is apparently only tolerated by Epsom voters on the basis of the overall positive-sum value proposition made by John Banks: “vote for me, and I’ll bring five MPs with me on current polling”. You’d be a fool to turn that offer down. Reduce the premium to one MP and it suddenly becomes rather less appealing.

So on paper ACT supporting a non-MMP system looks like a turkey voting for an early Christmas. But I think the game goes deeper than that. ACT has in recent years abandoned its claims to being a classical liberal party, and is now basically a more hardline version of National’s dry petit-authoritarian conservatism, with a few casual nods to “freedom”, such as in alcohol policy. In recent months it has been colonised by the former right of the National party (Brash and Banks, most notably; also “National in Gumboots” Federated Farmers former president Don Nicolson). Both the former were until very recently long-standing National members whose tribal loyalty undoubtedly lies with that party. They see it as having strayed from its roots, and while they undoubtedly appreciate its newfound popularity with voters, they have repeatedly expressed strong concerns that the party has lost its way, and an intention to bring it back around by putting “reinforcing steel” into its governments (in the words of John Banks). Both, I think, would join National again in a heartbeat if National would have them, and would permit them any influence. An electoral system switch to SM makes that a more viable possibility, and brazenly exploiting both the two major flaws to which most people object in MMP — the threshold free-rider rule and the “back door” rule that lets a rejected candidate such as Don Brash back in on the list — sets up a reasonably strong case against MMP.

Supplementary Member has the worst features of both FPP and MMP. It has high noise (the variance between the makeup of the electorate’s votes and the makeup of the resultant parliament), delivers huge incumbency advantages to parties that hold many electorate seats (because there are more of them), severely marginalises smaller parties by reducing proportionality, and despite all this does not meaningfully solve the symbolic split between “legitimate” electorate-based MPs and those who ‘only’ come in on the list, nor the threshold, “back door” or “horse-trading” objections that most critics name as MMP’s worst flaws. (BK Drinkwater modeled FPP, MMP and SM against each other using election data since 1996, although bear in mind that for SM, these figures assume a 70-50 electorate-list split, which is considerably more proportionate than the 90-30 proposed).

National holds many more electorate seats than Labour, and has nearly always done so, even when its popular vote has been lower because its base of support is less concentrated in inner-city and suburban electorates. Any system of reapportioning electorates on the basis of population will continue to entrench this advantage. Under MMP, it is not a very significant advantage; under FPP and SM, however, it is. ACT’s electoral support, both in electorates and nationally, is very weak, largely because their policies are purposefully divisive, with the intent of galvanising a small proportion of “right thinking” voters against the mainstream. National’s strategy since 2006 has been to occupy the centre-ground and cannibalise Labour’s votes in a zero-sum fashion. This has been a strategy of necessity — the 2005 election demonstrated pretty categorically that divisive politics, no matter how much money you could throw at it, no matter how favourable the cultural terrain, or how good the propaganda, was not a winner for National in an MMP environment. The incumbency and electorate edvantage delivered by SM, however, would cushion them against voter discontent and permit a more hardline approach: one that included ACT as a faction within the National party, as it previously was. So under SM, ACT doesn’t need National to throw it a bone, and National doesn’t need to rort the system to extract electoral advantage: National under SM will enjoy sufficient advantage to simply absorb ACT and its policy programme, and its governments will be emboldened to enact divisive or unpopular aspects of that programme without the same fear of electoral blowback that now constrains it. ACT’s strategy is therefore an insurgency against National; one that may be permitted by National, contingent upon the adoption of a more beneficial electoral system.

A further comment on Labour’s response in Epsom is also warranted. Arthur (in comments to my post linked above) suggested that the best way to nix ACT in the 2011 election is for all Labour and Green voters to cast electorate votes for the National candidate, Paul Goldsmith, in the hope that this will send a signal to National voters who are unhappy with the horse-trading between ACT and National that it might be worth defecting. This is, in principle, a strong strategy, and it has been picked up by some Green supporters as well. But I think it’s the wrong strategy in this case, for five reasons. First, it’s a complex and counterintuitive strategy, and it’s extremely hard to get so many people (on both sides) to act against their own instincts like that. Second, the value proposition made by ACT (six for the price of one) is simply too good for a meaningful number of National voters to pass up. Third, it would require Labour to publicly endorse a National candidate, which would permit John Key to proclaim that “even the opposition supports the National party”. Fourth, the electorate demographics for Epsom don’t stack up: this electorate bleeds blue and even if a fair proportion of disgruntled Nat voters defected, I don’t think there would be enough Green and Labour voters to prevail. Fifth, it would require Labour to buy into the electoral-system rorting, making them no better than the National and ACT parties.

Labour looks like it will mount an ‘economic dry’ insurgency by standing David Parker in Epsom. This is a better strategy because it is vulnerable only to the objections two and four above (the positive-sum value proposition, and demographics). These will probably still mean that it is unsuccessful in terms of winning Labour the electorate and denying ACT parliamentary representation, but it also has the advantages of fighting the national and ACT parties on their own turf — economic responsibility — and in demonstrating that even when they’re down, Labour fights fair and respects the integrity of the electoral system. Most crucially, however, whatever strategy is adopted by the left in Epsom must be coordinated. The two proposed strategies (vote Goldsmith and vote Parker) are contradictory: one must be abandoned, and soon, in favour of the other. Because if the Green faction goes into Epsom with one strategy and the Labour faction goes in with another, there’s only one winner: ACT.


All’s fair, even when it’s unfair

datePosted on 21:32, May 8th, 2010 by Lew

As much as it pains me to say it — having long hoped against hope for the illusory Liberal Democrat rally which would see the Conservative party locked out of the British government for another five years — on reflection, I think the result of Thursday’s election in the UK was a reasonably fair one.

That’s a bizarre thing to say for a bunch of reasons, so let me explain. I don’t mean it’s fair in the sense that the views of the electorate were adequately reflected. Hundreds were turned away from polling stations or otherwise prevented from voting, but that pales into irrelevance compared to the fact that somewhere north of 40% of electors who did manage to cast their votes legitimately had no influence whatsoever on the makeup of the parliament. Spare a thought for the 15,903 Lib Dem voters of Camborne & Redruth, whose incumbent candidate lost by just 66 to the local Tory. It’s certainly not fair to the “Celtic fringe” and other minor parties whose candidates were excluded from the main electioneering set-pieces. I’m frequently on record saying that politics isn’t fair, and it isn’t — you don’t get out what you put in, there are no guarantees and sometimes the righteous are not rewarded nor the wicked punished. But from time to time, despite its unfairness, democratic politics does cast a thin, pale shadow of justice, and this is just such a time.

The Labour party betrayed the trust of its electorate in myriad ways. Most egregiously by blindly backing Bush rather than undertaking its own due diligence on the Iraq war; more insidiously by quickening the pace of Britain’s march toward a surveillance state; and most materially by claiming to represent the caring face of modern compassionate capitalism while permitting the barons of the banking industry to make out like bandits to everyone else’s cost. The handover from Blair to Brown was slickly managed but its slickness betokened a deep rot within: a reluctance inside the party to interrogate and dispute and disagree on crucial matters of policy and principle. The absence of any such critical engagement with the big issues of our time during a period when those issues were front-and-centre for the first time in a generation was clear in that nobody challenged Brown, even for show — and it was evident in Brown when he spoke to the electorate. He was a leader who had been given his place; he had not earned it, and it showed. New Labour was deservedly rejected for their performance over the past three terms, and I do not rue its loss greatly.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, were little more deserving. Cameron is unashamedly Blair-like, even describing himself as Blair’s heir. But although early in his leadership he has more characteristics of the later Blair, lacking much of the political verve which marked Blair’s inspirational early career. He is a self-declared moderate, which seems to mean he doesn’t really believe much of anything; he claims to be a “compassionate conservative” but speaks fondly of Thatcher. He derides parliamentary politics as a circus — which, to me, is an indicator of authoritarian managerialism, the preference to stitch up faits-accompli in smoke-filled rooms rather than submit ideas and policy programmes to the chaos of public dispute and scrutiny. For all that, he is an extremely intelligent and politically astute man; his former Oxford tutor speaking of him with surprisingly high regard during the BBC election broadcast. He is in some of these regards deeply reminiscent of our own Prime Minister. His party, however, do not seem to be of this standard; certainly not in terms of ability, and certainly not in terms of ideas. They struggled to keep pace with an ideologically bankrupt Labour party throughout the campaign and preceding term, no doubt just thanking their lucky stars that they were not having to make any of the hard decisions throughout the financial crisis. They were deservedly kept from securing government on their own, although they probably consider that they’ve been robbed, given how deeply loathed Brown and his Labour party are.

But the Liberal Democrats were robbed, although not so much as comparing their share of vote to their share of seats might suggest. They were much less to blame than either of the other two parties for abusing their expenses, and have proposed a much more thorough programme of economic and social reforms to present to an electorate clearly displeased with the tired and mediocre offerings of the mainstream. In a loose moral sense, they deserved more than they got from this election, not simply on the numbers but on the basis of their performance. But they were also the architects of their own misfortune to some extent. They unselfconsciously tried to drive a “sensible moderate” path between two parties whose electoral programmes were positively defined by stultifying sameness and a refusal to commit to anything which might make a blind bit of difference. There was too small a space between those two for anything to properly bloom. They targeted the young, immigrants, and the otherwise marginalised for votes — groups who might respond to polls, but never really turn out on election day. Clegg also played with best-of-both-worlds populism, and his “I agree with Nick” slogan is now being cruelly mocked — as it perhaps always would, given that not even the most generous projections had them winning more than an eighth of seats.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats hold an ace, and that is proportional representation. Now Labour, which has long had the political capital to implement a proportional system but has consistently chosen not to even consider it, declares itself in support of electoral reform. Blair, for all the great things he did in his first term, could potentially have saved his hapless successor’s — and his party’s — hides in this election by starting the PR reforms when he could act with impunity. I hope he regrets the decision not to. Even David Cameron, an avowed opponent of PR and representing a party with a deep, even tribal opposition to such measures, now claims to support “reform of the political system”, though — remaining true to form — he has been carefully circumspect on what he actually means by that. I reckon he means “make sure all the polling stations have enough ballot papers”, which is admittedly a good start. But PR is the only way to end the electoral corpulence of the two major parties; while they remain insulated from the challenges of lesser parties there will be no genuine improvement.

So the Liberal Democrats have to go for bust to get proportional representation, now. That, paradoxically, means supporting the Tories to the minimal extent necessary, in the classic sort of compromise that leaves neither party happy. (Though it does mean that the Lib Dems must rebuff as much of Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive” coalition deal as they can get away with.) For all that it seems, on paper, like a wonderful idea for the Liberal Democrats to give Labour the chance to build a coalition out of the the minor parties — everyone except Sinn Féin and the DUP would be needed — such a course of action would lead to proportional representation being robustly rejected by the British electorate. To stitch together all of these competing interests and Quixotic crusades into a cooperative which can agree on a seating plan, let alone draft constitutional reforms as important as devolution wast would require a bona fide political genius. Gordon Brown is not that genius, and nor is Nick Clegg. If such a person existed in Britain at present, he would probably be the leader of a very much more substantial majority in the House of Commons already. The inevitable, catastrophic failure of such a merry band of jokers would paint for the British people the worst possible picture of what proportional representation parliaments would look like, at the worst possible time, and would leave the Tories free to simply sit on the sidelines and shake their heads knowingly. For all that it’s a self-serving platitude to excuse a deeply undemocratic system, “strong, stable government” really is quite useful during times of such deep economic crisis. Not only would these events drive the electorate into the arms of the Conservative party (who would not even need to change their slogan), but it would sink any chances of PR being adopted for a generation or more. On the other hand, to force the Conservatives to permit even a discussion about PR could grant Labour a new lease on life. Once it’s cut away the extensive dead wood, the party would be in a strong position to stand against the nay-saying Tories trying — and likely failing — to limit their exposure to the public’s will and to make a decent fist of their time in government (in that order of priority).

Probably the most memorable quote for me from this election coverage was “the voters have spoken: we just don’t know what they’ve said”. Well, it seems to me that what they’ve said is “screw the lot of you”, with the perhaps unspoken exhortation to “sort your bloody act out”. I hope that’s the message received. That means the death of expressionless, gutless managerialism in politics, and it means a genuine engagement with the electorate on electoral reform. Neither can come soon enough.


MMP in NZ is safe

datePosted on 12:53, May 6th, 2010 by Lew

shirtcliffe ad

  • It has been found to work pretty well and all parliamentary parties except ACT support it.
  • The UK election is about to remind people how perverse FPP is.
  • Peter Shirtcliffe is spamming people in order to gain support for his anti-MMP campaign.
  • His google ad campaign looks like this ====>

Seriously. That’s him. A ranting white middle-aged elderly patrician of the sort New Zealand’s governments were almost exclusively composed before the change in electoral system — and on a soap-box, for goodness’ sake. A starker warning of what’s in store should the electoral system change is hard to envisage. Also: it’s visually busy and garish. The blue is neither National-party royal blue, nor ACT-party aqua-blue, nor flag-Navy; it’s nothing. The message is over-long and confused (campaign for an effective referendum? Don’t you mean to campaign against the electoral system? No? Ok then.) And the cartoon …

Thanks, Peter, you’re doing your country a great service.

(Thanks to Lyndon Hood in the comments to Russell’s thread linked above for the pic.)

[This line inserted to fill whitespace].


Bleg: what do people want in an electoral system?

datePosted on 20:10, September 22nd, 2009 by Lew

I wrote most of this before DPF’s post on the threshold, including his link to Chris Bishop’s handy paper on representation and stability went up, so read that first. In fact, you’d also do very well to look over BK Drinkwater’s series comparing electoral systems: noise, wastage, proportionality, and a critique of some critiques of SM, although note that the SM numbers assume a 70-50 electorate-list split as per our MMP system at present. This is good from an apples-apples perspective, even if it’s not an option that’s actually on the table. I also wrote it before my more-recent post on the topic, for which some people have begun offering their preferred electoral modifications. Wonderful!

Much like the subtext to the s59 referendum question was ‘do you like the anti-smacking bill?’, the question above lurks behind the forthcoming debate on MMP, for which the troops are currently massing.

The likeliest contender, in my view, is the retention of MMP as we have it now, with a 5% threshold and a 70-50 split. Other less-likely contenders, again in my view, are as follows:

  • STV, as employed in some local body elections and for the Australian Senate.
  • SM, as apparently favoured by National and employed in the Republic of Korea.

Note that FPP isn’t in this list. I don’t think NZ would go back. Modified MMP also isn’t in the list; not that I think it isn’t a credible contender, just that the way the process is structured (referendum: MMP yes/no; if no, referendum on alternate systems) doesn’t seem likely to permit it. There are lots of other peripheral options, such as open list; run-off or instant run-off; or any number of other possibilities. Feel free to argue your corner.

But what sort of system do people actually want? As I see it, within a centralised democratic structure such as we have, relevant factors include the following:

  • Transparency. Results in transparent electoral systems are clear and obvious; how a particular candidate, party or government was elected is reasonably self-evident. FPP is very transparent. STV is very opaque.
  • Simplicity. Simple systems are easy for people whose political engagement stretches to ticking a box or two every three years to understand. Again; FPP is very simple, STV is not at all.
  • Proportionality. Proportional systems elect candidates from parties according to the party’s share of the vote. FPP is not proportional at all. STV is often claimed to be proportional, but it’s really fauxportional, often producing results which seem proportional but were arrived at by non-proportional means. Open list is (in principle) perfectly proportional. Thresholds in proportional systems and the number of electorates in mixed systems are also relevant to this question.
  • Representativeness. Similar but orthogonal to proportionality, a representative system contains mechanisms to guarantee certain segments of the electorate representation. This is a complex notion; geographical electorates are such a representative measure, ensuring that people from the geographical margins are represented, when a non-geographically-determined system (such as purely proportional open list) might marginalise them. Reserve seats for tangata whenua or other groups are another such form of representativeness.
  • Low wastage/regret. Conventional wisdom is that the prospect of a wasted vote depresses turnout (or changes behaviour) among voters who believe their vote might be wasted, which is a self-perpetuating cycle. This is most evident in FPP, but is also present in proportional systems to an extent, due to the effects of a threshold.
  • Decisiveness. Decisive systems produce strong, stable executive governments with few constraints on their power. FPP, except in the rare case of a hung parliament being elected, is decisive, while proportional systems which elect a number of parties and rely on coalitions are less decisive.
  • Small size. Self-explanatory. Any system can be made large or small, but this frequently has huge impacts on other factors.
  • Durability. Durable systems are not prone to future governments tinkering with, amending or replacing them. FPP was extremely durable. MMP has proven fairly durable. This is a meta-factor, in a sense; it seems like anyone valuing this factor highly should lobby for one of the less-extreme systems; a second-best choice, rather than a perfectly proportional system or a highly decisive system, since ‘pretty good’ is less likely to be overturned.

In principle, the relative importance a person assigns to of each of these factors should point to that person’s ideal electoral system. Could be programmed into a handy poll in the leadup to the referendum; in fact, I bet it already has been, I just haven’t found it.

There are other relevant electoral changes, as well. Here are a few; please add your own:

  • Size of parliament and division of seats. Yeah, I listed it above – what I’m referring to here is the electorate-list split in mixed systems; the North/South island and rural/urban splits, that sort of thing. Also the vexed question: how many MPs overall?
  • Allocation of seats. Historically, the One True Way in NZ was for seats to be allocated along population-geographic lines. Nowadays it’s a mix of population-geographic and party allegiance. But what other means of allocating seats are there? What would happen if seats were allocated according to social class? Income? Level of education? Ethnicity? Religion? The history of democracy contains precedent for all these things in one way or another.
  • Decentralisation. Federation of micro-states? Balance of central and local government power? How does one dismantle centralised democracy using democratic mechanisms?
  • Electoral term and other constitutional institutions. Our three-year term is quite short, and there are few checks on the executive ability of governments – as long as they have a parliamentary majority, there’s little they can’t (and won’t) do. Do we need a second chamber? A longer term? Should one go along with the other?
  • Referenda and non-electoral plebiscites. What should their status be? Other representative mechanisms, such as citizens’ juries?
  • The big one. What difference would becoming a republic make anyhow? A better question: if people knew that NZ would become a republic in the near future, how might their electoral preferences change?

Please, answer the question. What do you actually want in an electoral system, and why? And more than that — what do you want, and what do you think is (even remotely) plausible?


Update: Scott Yorke has a few choice words on the topic, as well.