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.