By Rob Salmond
It sounds like Phil G did a great job at Labour’s conference setting out where the party should go from here. Unfortunately, his KISS message didn’t get to all attendees. Labour apparently now wants to propose modifications to MMP, including more electorate MPs, fewer list MPs, a lower threshold, and getting rid of the electorate-coattails rule. I think this is a mistake for three reasons.
1. The proposed reforms are a bit blah
The more electorate MPs idea does not, as hoped, make MPs much more accessible. In urban areas, having an MP’s office 3kms away isn’t much different to having it 5kms away, and anecdotally urban MPs don’t have lines round the block anyway. In rural areas, having an MP’s office 300kms away isn’t much different from having one 200kms away it is a massive hassle either way. I/S is right here (although he goes too far elsewhere in both posts on this topic) there is a possible cost to small party representation in this proposal. Also, this move really would affect minority group representation. According to Andy Reynolds (World Politics, 1999), people usually vote for ‘lowest common denominator’ (i.e. wrinkly white guy) candidates in single-member districts for multiple reasons, despite any party attempts to put up balanced slates around the country. More single-member districts = more old white dudes.
Ditching the electorate coattails rule may cause more people to strategically vote for large parties. It would not make a large difference to government formation or policy direction, but it would be a further barrier to small party representation. Minimizing strategic voting on the party vote is a good thing about MMP, and this idea gets more of it for little gain.
Yes, the 4% thing might help with representation, but only a little bit. It certainly isn’t a gain worth buying into a big political fight for.
2. Screwing with the structure of a referendum
Lianne Dalziel says: ‘This referendum must not be allowed to proceed as a ‘for and against’ vote.’ I disagree. No change must always be an option. The status quo is what the public wanted last time we should always get the option to say ‘no, we were right all along.’
(That is not to say there should not be any discussion of amendments to MMP, only that it really is not appropriate to conflate the wider ‘MMP or not’ question with the smaller ‘what kind of MMP’ question. Sure, if MMP wins the upcoming referendum, then let’s have the discussion. But let’s not put the cart before the horse.)
3. Taking heat off National
Until now, National has been getting heat (even from David Farrar!) for potentially subverting the referendum process. Screwing with democracy is not a good thing to take heat for. Why then would Labour want to divert any of that heat away from National? The only way this makes sense as a strategy is if there is massively overwhelming public mood against the electoral system as it stands and there isn’t much evidence of that.
Phil is right: Labour’s message needs to be simple and clear. By 2011, everyone needs to know that Labour is for improving quality of life for all in New Zealand by pushing lower-level living standards higher. Full stop. Elections are won with a very small number of clear and well-developed ideas, not with a plethora of ideas in various stages of development. Floating very public trial balloons about exciting things like the legal threshold for party representation undermines that clear and simple message.
So what should Labour say now? How about: ‘MMP can of course be modified, and we can talk about that later. But in order to improve MMP first you need to keep MMP, which the people will decide on soon. Labour’s focus is not on the electoral system right now. It is on improving quality of life for all New Zealanders ‘