I Have a Little List

With most parties having announced their lists for the next election, we need to think about how the system works.

  • As some day it may happen that an MP must be found
  • They’re put upon the list - I've got a little list
  • Of political offenders who are always safe and sound
  • And who never would be missed - so I put them on the list.
  • There's opinionated graduates who always are around
  • Who’ve done absolutely nothing but are legislature bound
  • Who know absolutely nothing but think it’s so profound
  • Who don’t connect with anybody, staying underground
  • Who in any other job would be speedily dismissed
  • They'd none of 'em be missed - I’ve put them on the list.
  •  There are those at all the meetings whose expertise is pissed,
  • With certainties of facts that never did exist
  • Who never help with anything but rush off to a tryst
  • They never would be missed - I’ve put them on the list
  • There’s the idiots who criticise with enthusiastic tone
  • While talking very loudly on the mobile telephone
  • Who speaks with sound and fury and dwells upon the past
  • Who enters a revolving door behind and exit unsurpassed
  • There’s a wireless jock, a salesman of tobacco, a proctologist,
  • I don't think they'd be missed - I'm sure they'd not be missed!
  •  There's the political adviser and others of that race
  • The party loyalist - I've got them on the list!
  • Who stab you in the back while smiling to your face.
  • They'd none of 'em be missed - they'd none of 'em be missed
  • And there’s one who I have kissed, I’ve got HER on MY list.
  • There’s apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind
  • Such as - What d'ye call him - Thing'em-bob, and likewise - Never-mind
  • And ' What's-her-name, and You-know-who, and some may not exist.
  • But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list
  • For they'd none of 'em be missed - they'd none of 'em be missed!

I supported MMP. The previous electoral system – often called ‘First-Past-the-Post’ but better, I think, ‘Front Runner’ – exaggerated the mandate of the government which rarely won even half the votes but often ended up with a vast majority in parliament. Our parliamentary system has been described as an ‘elected dictatorship’. From 1975 to 1993 (and perhaps earlier) the government used that excessive mandate to pursue policies which ignored those who voted them in.

Since 1993 governments with much smaller majorities – a coalition of parties – have been much more sensitive to the public. Jim Bolger, Helen Clark and John Key all deserve praise for the way they have responded to the management challenge.

Even before it was introduced I, like many others, saw a weakness of MMP was how the party lists would be composed. A centralised party, such as Labour, could foist their party hacks on their voters; even the more decentralised party, such as National, ends up with a list on which there are people who hardly represent quality or the populace. (But then again under FR, there were some very unattractive electorate choices.)

I do not think we have really got our head around MMP. I shant discuss here the wrinkles which distort the proportionality and have directly benefited ACT, United Future and the Maori Party. However, they have indirectly benefited National; when the Electoral Commission recommended removing a key one (the way the threshold works) the government did nothing.

My interest here is how the system generates different outcomes for the two significant parties of the right (National and New Zealand First) from the two of the left (Labour and Greens); NZF would say it is a party of the centre but precise labels do not matter for these purposes.

First, observe the difference between National and Labour, using the 2014 election. National got 47.0% of the party list vote but only 46.1% of the electorate vote. In contrast Labour got 25.2% of the party list vote (not too different from the levels reported by recent polls) but 34.1% of the electorate vote.

This is because almost a third of voters split their vote between who they vote for in the electorate and who they vote for on the list. The proportions for National and Labour list voters who do so are considerably less (about a sixth of their list voters). But over half of list voters for NZF and the Greens (and ACT, UF and the Maori Party, just) give their electorate vote to another party.

Much of this is tactical voting. Suppose you were in the Nelson electorate, bitter about the National Government’s environmental policies. It might make sense to reserve your party vote for the Greens but to vote for the Labour candidate against National’s Minister for the Environment (Nick Smith) in the hope of toppling him.

The toppling did not happen in 2014 but suppose it did. Then Labour would have had one further electorate seat but would have lost one list seat (Andrew Little’s, as it would have happened) while National would have won one more list seat which, lo and behold, would have been given to their ousted Nelson candidate (who was high enough on the party list).

Thus the tactical voting which favours Labour electorate seats undermines its list seats. The example shows there is a sense in which Labour’s list seats are to be found in the Green Party’s seats.

The pattern is different on the right where a lot of supporters of the minor parties do not vote tactically to ensure the National candidate wins. Indeed many NZF party voters probably vote for Labour candidates in electorates. (Which is one piece of evidence that NZF may cite for their party being of the centre rather than the right; an alternative reading is that they are grumpy populists voting against the government).

Thus NZF wants to recruit voters from National and Labour while the Greens mainly recruit additional voters only at the expense of Labour. This broadly explains why there is a different outcome between National and Labour in the balance between their electorate and list seats.

It may not be a good thing for the two largest parties to have this asymmetry. Others are likely to conclude there is a delicacy in the electoral outcomes for Labour and the Greens. How they handle – or mishandle – their electoral relations may be critical for each party’s survival.


Footnote. Suppose Labour had beaten the Maori Party in the Waiariki seat (Te Ururoa Flavell’s seat). That would have set the MP seats to zero and reduced the total of parliamentary seats to 120, since there would have been no overhang seat. Labour would have swapped a list seat (Andrew Little’s) for an electorate seat. The list seat would have gone to National who now with 61 seats, would have been able to govern alone. Huh?


(Help with the words of the song came from W. S. Gilbert and Elizabeth Caffin.)