This was going to a comment, but I thought my telling off by Ian Mackay and Richard Aston on my previous post was worth a fuller reply

Two regular Pundit-visitors Ian and Richard have tsked tsked me on my previous post, warning me not to believe the "National spin" and "slogan" around National's large lead over Labour. Their argument is that under MMP a 15 percent gap between the major parties doesn't matter. Here's why they're wrong...

First, I'll challenge them to read the post again because Ian's point that "we are in MMP now. Remember that the minor parties can also make a difference" is (sorry Ian) not a very good one given current political conditions.

First, even under MMP 15 percent between the two major parties is a large gap. No party has had that kind of a lead under MMP and not formed the next government, so for the centre-left to be contenders – and for swing voters to feel turning out and voting for change is worthwhile – it has to be closer. And that goes for making the volunteers work hard and even the MPs to pull their fingers out. It's just psychology.

I mentioned the 'missing million' as well. Labour has some very good analysis of that group going on, but the simple reality is that many stayed away because Labour didn't look like winning. If they are 15 points behind in the campaign, where's the motivation for the unmotivated to vote? While Cunliffe was careful not to say it during the primaries, Robertson and Jones both said publically that Labour would need to hit 40 percent to win this one. I don't think that's right, but 31 percent is no mandate to govern on in this political environment.

But yes, as Ian and Ricahrd say, under MMP such a gap can be filled by others. The Greens have 11 percent and the post repeatedly talks about the two parties as a centre-left bloc. That still leaves them close to five percent short, as I wrote. And, as I wrote, you'd be brave to call the election now.

But most importantly of all, it's because this is MMP and the influence smaller parties have that I'm concluding the gap matters. Primarily – again, as I wrote – it makes it very hard to justify NZF going with Labour-Greens.

You may have read my piece last week, which pointed out that NZF has twice as king-maker gone with the largest party. That shows Peters' unwillingness to get offside with the majority of voters, I think. He talks about a "constitutional convention" that the party with the most votes gets the first shot at forming the government.

When pressed on The Nation a couple of weeks back he said that first shot, importantly, amounts to little more than a phone call. But Peters has not survived so long by chasing windmills. New Zealand voters have the same expectation (biggest parties win) and he will be very aware of that if his party has the balance of power.

For him to break his self-styled "convention" (I'm using italics because there is no convention, just his reading of the popular will), his party needs political cover. That assumes he and his MPs even wants a change and those such as Jim Bolger who say he's a Nat at heart are wrong or that the distrust of John Key in New Zealand First is so strong as to have them backing a new government.

To flesh out what I was getting at in today's earlier piece: New Zealand First needs to be able to convince New Zealanders that change is essential and that the race is close enough to justify that. If National is in the high 40s and Labour 15 points behind, I suspect Peters won't be willing to take that argument to the masses.

As for the Maori Party, Richard, they've made it clear they will go with the winner. They seem to want to be King-followers rather than King-makers.

Put that together and I reach the conclusion that without a smaller gap, the minor parties are unlikely to support a change of government. They're going to have to feel that the groundswell around the country is for something different, and I don't know about you but I don't see the signs of that at the moment.

So my argument back to you fine fellows is to not believe the spin when people say the major parties gap doesn't matter under MMP. It does.

Comments (25)

by Alan Johnstone on March 31, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The gap matters, except when it doesn't.

At the end of the day, it's just maths, does Key have the numbers or not?

I think the public would swallow a situation if the Labour / Green total was higher than National, less so if it required Mana \ Maori \ NZ First too.

But, if that's the way the numbers fall, the public really don't have any say in it, the numbers are the numbers. If I was Cunliffe, I'd offer anything to minor support partners at get a chance to govern, just by dint of being PM, he'll look more Prime Ministerial.

Six months later he can go again, asking for a clearer mandate and run against who ever takes over from Key as National leader.  He'd likely increase the Labour vote in a second election.

by Alan Johnstone on March 31, 2014
Alan Johnstone

As for the Maori party, I think you can discount them, they are dead. No more than 1 seat next time round, it's the price they've paid for getting too close to Key.

by Richard Aston on March 31, 2014
Richard Aston

Good points Tim and I don't think you are personally guilty of swallowing the spin, just making the point that the two party spin is out there. Given you contact with some of the main players I respect you voice on this.

So a 15% gap, 11% - on current polling - filled by the greens = a 4% gap. 

So if nothing major happens to the current support of the majors it will come down to the minors.

NZF:  Peters says what he likes but his interview with Kathryn Ryan was telling in that the cross benches was his least preferred option. He says the largest party vote would be his preference – will of the people and all that - but he won't give anything away until after election for fear of losing voters from left or right. It’s not even guaranteed that he will get past 5%. Like Labour he will need to drive a strong message to get that vote up, what’s he got so far that’s unique to NZF? What will really attract him to one party of the other? He agrees with Labour/Greens re-writing the Reserve bank act for example.   

Maori party, many are predicting its downfall, the Mana/Maori grouping doesn’t seem to have come together post Tariana Turia, which will split the maori vote, Shane Jones may pull Maori voters back to labour. So perhaps no Maori party coalition partner for National or maybe just one MP countered by one Mana MP on the other side.

No one is predicting Act will doing anything other than die, the Conservatives may rank or slip into oblivion. National will have to be desparate to offer them a cup of tea.  Mr Dunne may as well be in the National Party and Herr Dot Com may surprise us all.

I am no political pundit but I have voted in 14 elections and it seems to me this one is full of vagaries and possibilities. Actually that’s why it’s so damned interesting.

My ideal result is a complex multi-party coalition/support arrangement that doesn’t give any one party enough power to ram ill thought out  ideologically driven policies down our throats. 

I acknowledge a rabble of bickering politicians is not everyone’s cup of tea , many want “strong leadership” . Sigh.

by Alex Coleman on March 31, 2014
Alex Coleman

Tim, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't your argument that Winston will care more about National party voters will think of him than what his own voters want?

Your argument seems to rely on the fact that the opposition vote to National gets chopped up because it goes to Labour and Greens. But if the blocks are about equal, then they are about equal. Choosing either side would annoy the other side, who would feel robbed. You seem to be arguing that Winston would annoy significantly fewer voters by choosing National because the National vote isn't split.

Personally, I think Winston will care more about what his own voters want, than he will about everyone who didn't vote for him, and it will come down to which side will be more likely to force him to have to sell the fewest dead rats.

But this notion that if Nat and L+G are pretty much equal, 'New Zealand' will want National to govern, baffles me. NZ would be pretty much split down the middle, or do you think Labour voters will be outraged that National not get to govern?

On the idea that a big gap will depress turnout for the party that is behind, I can see this happening, especially if the idea takes hold that adding Lab to Green is a stupid idea with no merit. But if people look at the polls and work out how a government could be formed from the result, then what matters is the gap between the blocks.



by Peter Green on March 31, 2014
Peter Green
by Alan Johnstone on March 31, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Winston cares about Winston. It's really that simple.

This is probably his last election, his "party" dies when he goes, it has no reson to exist other than as a vessel for him.

He'll do what he wants, my guess is he wants power.

by Alan Johnstone on March 31, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Tim's premise seems to be that 46% of the vote given to National somehow gives more legitimancy than 46% of the vote given to Labour / Greens combined, just because it's given to one party rather than 2.

I can't grasp why this would be the case.

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan and Alex, you're critiquing on the point that I seem to think National's voters matter more than the Labour and Greens voters combined. But I can confidently point back a couple of years and say that Pundit was very early in stressing that it's a majority parliament that matters when it comes to forming a government; Andrew and I have both written about how the party coming second at this election (Labour) could for the first time in MMP history get the chance to govern. Here I was more than two years ago.

But it's a competing point I'm making today. First, a significant majority New Zealanders have told pollsters they expect the party with the most votes to govern (that includes Labour voters). There's no constitutional reason for that, they're wrong, but there you are. So Alan, your 46-46 split (which isn't accurate in current polling) isn't quite what you're making it out to be. Even many who vote for change only expect to get it if they can "win". Or at least get bloody close.

Second, my point is that Peters will be reading that mood. Again I'm not saying there's any good reason for it, but politically he's gone that way in the past and I suspect his instincts could be hard to budge on that front. Having said that, he's also insisted he'll listen to his MPs on that front.

Third, you're both talking about L+G and National being neck and neck or "pretty much equal". They were, but they aren't now. That's the point of the gap now; in October your point would be more valid, but it's changed in the past six months and National now has a roughly five point lead over the opposition pair. That's significant. It means if NZF fails to get into parliament, National has it. And it means the pressure will be on NZF to keep the status quo. Unless that gap can be closed again.

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alex, it's a really interesting argument you make. What will Winston care about? And, if you take him at his word, what will his MPs and board care about? Tuariki Delamere told me a couple of weeks ago that in 1996 he thinks Peters would have gone with Labour if that was what his caucus really, really wanted. But National just offered more.

But who are NZ First voters? What do they want? Change, perhaps, but change of the L+G variety? Or more change of the Conservative type? It's hard to generalise, but an interesting question. It'd be interesting to poll NZF voters specifically.

Yes they will be split somewhat, which as you say raises the risk of annoying a bit chunk of your own support. How does Peters manage that? By delivering results they want, even if they don't like the coalition partners delivering them, perhaps?

As for the turnout point, the possibility that L+G seems like "a stupid idea" gets oxygen if the potential PM can't convince people to see him as a potential PM. People may or may not get the point of how a government could be formed by 2nd, 3rd and 4th parties (I hope they do for the sake of MMP), but I still argue that it's not just the gap in the blocs that matters. I mean, yes it does technically matter most. But the Nat-Lab gap matters too. Largely, as I've said today, because of Peters and perception.


by Danyl Mclauchlan on April 01, 2014
Danyl Mclauchlan

Just to add to Tim's point: while many on the left have adopted the Labour-Greens coalition perspective, and the Greens themselves use that terminology, the bulk of Labour's MPs absolutely do not. They've been pretty clear that their preferred post-election scenario is a Labour-New Zealand First government. They feel that the prospect of a Labour-Greens government scares of centrist voters. Y'know - the way National's alliance with ACT has made John Key unpopular and unelectable. 

by Moz on April 01, 2014

and the Greens themselves use that terminology, the bulk of Labour's MPs absolutely do not

I think this is the killer. There's a voice from within Labour saying "unless we get 45% on our own there's no point voting for us". And a lot of their voters have heard that and acted on it. Shane Jones is the most prominent from that side, I think, albeit his message is closer to "I'd rather be in opposition than in coalition with The Greens".

by Richard Aston on April 01, 2014
Richard Aston

And then elsewhere generation Zero is actively campaigning to get younger people to actually vote this time ie the 42 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds who did not vote in 2011. Gen Zero are strong on climate change action , very green.

Might be a few suprises in the Green vote. How would that gap look if the Greens got 15% or more.


by Alan Johnstone on April 01, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Young people, esp poor non white ones simply don't vote Richard, that's why the state treats them like crap and rewards pensioners who do.

You need a transformational candidate like an Obama to get them out. There is no one is NZ that is remotely close to doing that.

In terms of the gap, the polls prior to the last election consistently overstated the national share and it was a damm close run thing (although, this has been forgotten and 2011 remembered as a romp for National). Why this was, who knows?

It wouldn't surprise me to see it happen again, we have an administration with an effective single seat majority going for a third term, has anyone ever won from this position.


by Richard Aston on April 01, 2014
Richard Aston

Yes maybe an Obama but the 18+ generation can also be inspired by ideals and will listen to each other more than some older leader. The occupy movement was essentially leaderless.  Which is why I'm interested in the Gen Zero movement and in the younger people I work with and talk to. They are either strong on big ideals eg the eco movement or total self interest. I reckon if one party promised to remove student loans they would get thousands out to vote.

Maybe I am dreaming but my hope for this election is a surprise result coming out of nowhere - or left field -  that nobody expected.



by stuart munro on April 01, 2014
stuart munro

It's the usual story of the last 30 years - the factions own a third of the vote each, and the discontented third shuffle about the middle, hoping for a few shreds of decency from the self-serving vermin in parliament. They've tried NZ First, and United Future, but the results are not inspiring. Kim Dotcom could probably pick them up if the constant barrage of vilification does not sour him.

Voting is always an act of faith - that society can be reformed by peaceful means. While gross large scale thefts like privatisation go unpunished however, there is little hope for democracy, and older, atavistic mechanisms begin to be relevant once more.

by BeShakey on April 01, 2014

"They feel that the prospect of a Labour-Greens government scares of centrist voters. Y'know - the way National's alliance with ACT has made John Key unpopular and unelectable"

Danyl - I suspect you're being sarcastic, but my feeling in they're right on this. Centrist voters aren't scared by ACT for two reasons - they were clearly only ever going to be a very small part of the government (on current polling 1 MP vs 14 for the Greens). And second, centrist voters trust Key not to do anything crazy (you can argue whether that trust is justified or not, but its there). The best you can say about Cunliffe is that the voters aren't sure about him.

From Labour's perspective there isn't really any downside to distancing themselves from the Greens, provided they don't go so far that the Greens are willing to prevent them from forming a Government post-election.

by Ian MacKay on April 02, 2014
Ian MacKay

John Key's constant refrain is that since Labour is polling only around 30%, they are a lost cause. When pundits pick that up and repeat it often enough it becomes a public belief. Labour during the Clark Government years was not a majority and survived for nine long years. But as Tim knows it is not as simple as that. At the last election some say about 10,000 votes was all that got National lead Government in.

So maybe once David Cunliffe gets better exposure and Labour policies get a proper airing that gap between National and friends and the Labour/Green grouping will close.

And the constant call that the biggest party should be the government is so wrong in MMP. Be interesting to know how the question was put in a poll.

"Do you think that the party with the most votes should govern?"

"Do you think that the parties with the most votes should govern?"

by Richard Aston on April 02, 2014
Richard Aston

"Do you think that the parties with the most votes should govern?"

Thats real MMP thinking Ian .


by Ian MacKay on April 02, 2014
Ian MacKay

Yes Richard. The phrasing of the question is critical when polling. If amongst a lot of questions I was asked did I think the biggest party should govern, err yes, of course I would say. On reflection I would mean that the biggest grouping as in MMP is what counts. The cynic in me thinks that some answers to polls are skewed and the answers become truths in the hands of pundits.

by Ken on April 02, 2014

Another reason the gap matters. This is not a third or fourth term govt with people looking for change. The only way Labour has a chance of winning is to convince people an alternative govt would be better. What is the alternative govt they can promote? The only one that can be discussed is Labour/Green. Winston might be there and he might not, but this is the only alternative govt that can be promoted to the electorate so long as Winston sits on the fence. The electorate may not like the choice and stick with Key, but Labour, by not understanding their task is to paint a vision of what the next govt will do, are ensuring that they will lose.

by stuart munro on April 03, 2014
stuart munro

Some of Winston's conditions can be discussed though. His play for Christchurch - the rebuilding of the cathedral is politically astute in that it has significant symbolic value to many people. Unfortunately, tall stone buildings and serious earthquake zones are not a happy marriage. Labour and the Greens could promise to complete the Christchurch process expeditiously - but rebuilding for the second time a structure that has killed quite a few people might not be the best example of the kind of enlightened policy one hopes will characterise the incoming government.

A Hunterwasser style reimagining of the cathedral might bring new life into the heart of the city, or a lower or wooden structure would avert futher fatal collapses.

by Tim Watkin on April 03, 2014
Tim Watkin

Ian, the thing is that Labour is only 31 percent at the moment. For a pundit to say anything else is either boosterism or dishonest. If Key is being accurate, it's not spin to be saying the same thing.

You can't ask a question about 'parties' without clarifying which parties - Labour plus Greens, NZF, Mana? That's one of the reasons journalists keep asking the party leaders about these things, because otherwise we're talking about phantom coalitions. The question, I think, is along the lines of 'should whichever party can command a majority in parliament should lead the government?'

Ken, nice point. Voters were looking tired of this government late last year, but that's been turned around for the moment. So Labour has to make people want change. And at the moment I don't think voters know what that change would look like. As you say, maybe Winston, maybe not. And who is Cunliffe anyway?


by Richard Aston on April 04, 2014
Richard Aston

Good points about Labour needing to show what a change would look like to motivate swinging voters.  Its dissapointing because there is so much pontential but Labour is just not running with it.

Why? What the hell has gone wrong. Doesn't really matter what side of the divide you are on we do need a really articulate alternative voice.

Cunliffe is just not authentic , which is why - in my  opinion Shane Jones gets traction at least he seems authentic. Same for Hone who I find very authentic .

by william blake on April 04, 2014
william blake

Richard, compared to Key, Cunliffe is stone to Keys mist.

by Paul on April 06, 2014

So does it all change with every poll?  When last weeks Roy Mogan shows the left block ahead does the media start talking again about the reality that this matters more tha the gap between National and Labour or do they persist on turning all those folk who think it does matter off voting? 

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