Thursday, March 24, 2005

State of the Parties - National

The Dominion Post has published a profile of the National Party, focusing on their state under MMP. I agree with DPF - this is a very balanced account of the Party.

The concept of a "natural party of government" is something that interests me. I wrote a paper on Labour's state under MMP for Jon Johannson's 300-level Politics paper in 2003, a passage of which was reprodused in the Young Labour Newsletter. Things have changed since 2003...

NZLP and the Changing Party System

Often termed the 'natural party of opposition' the New Zealand Labour Party has a somewhat mixed record both in government and in opposition since losing the 1975 election. Originally established as the political wing of the West Coast trade unions, Labour has gone through a period of Neo-Liberalism, broken with its traditional union affiliates, and spawned breakaway parties as diverse as the Alliance and ACT. In the meantime, the change of the electoral system from First Past the Post (FPP) to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system has severely altered New Zealand's political landscape, effecting significant changes on the New Zealand Labour Party.

Commentators such as Jonathon Boston claimed that New Zealand's move to a proportional representation system would be to the detriment of Labour and National, as a first-past-the-post election paves the way for a two party system. Indeed, between 1945 and 1996 all but 9 seats were won by either of the major parties. While Social Credit, and Bob Jones' New Zealand Party challenged this two party dominance, they did so with only limited electoral success. MMP has seen the formation of numerous smaller 'third' parties. Political Scientist Raymond Miller refers to this as the 'flaking process', where by, a number of current MP's, concerned with their position under MMP, left their parties to form, or join existing smaller parties. This is certainly the situation relating to the formation of most of the parties in the current Parliament, namely New Zealand First, United (now United Future), and Jim Anderton's Progressive Coalition Party.

A survey of Labour's election hoardings in the 1999 and 2002 elections show how Labour has adapted to the MMP electoral system. In 1999 Labour issued two differing types of hoarding: a generic Labour party hoarding featuring Helen Clark, and, in anticipation of victory, stating "THE FUTURE IS WITH LABOUR"; and a second electorate-specific hoarding, promoting the local electorate candidate, either with or without a photograph of the candidate, and, to a lesser extent, promoting the Labour party. Neither made any specific reference to the party vote, until an attachment was nailed to the hoardings late in the campaign, when the party realised that many voters were going to split their vote.

In contrast, generic National hoardings featured a photograph of leader Jenny Shipley, and were specifically aimed at the party votes, clearly asking voters to give National their party vote, while in key electorates, such as Wellington Central, the Alliance asked voters to split their vote with Labour's candidate, Marian Hobbs (to unseat ACT MP Richard Prebble), a precursor to the imminent Labour - Alliance. In his post election analysis of the 1999 campaign, Labour's campaign manager Mike Williams stated that many centre-left voters tend to ignore mainstream media, tending not to watch televised news, listen to news radio, or read any of the major daily newspapers that "they have to pay for". This effectively made the local candidate the centre of the party vote campaign, hence the late realisation of the importance of the Party vote in Labour's 1999 campaign.

By 2002, Labour had changed its tact somewhat, and, as a general strategy specifically campaigned for the party vote ahead of the electorate vote. Once again, two differing hoardings were issued, however, unlike in 1999, both made reference to the party vote over the electorate vote. The generic Labour hoarding stated clearly: "Party Vote Labour [Tick]", with a photo of Helen Clark, while the electorate hoardings simply said "[Tick] Labour", and below in smaller writing the same with the candidates family name. Late into the campaign, Labour employed a similar tactic as 1999, this time however, emphasising Labour's stability in government with "VOTE: Stable Government" plastered across hoardings.

Labour's Rakaia candidate in 2002, Tony Milne, points out that campaigning in Canterbury had a two-way regional approach to it. Rakaia activists contributed to the region's party vote (which included both safe Labour seats, such as Christchurch Central, and safe National seats, like Rakaia and Ilam), while activists from around Canterbury were recruited to campaign for party votes in un-winnable seats like Rakaia. A similar approach was taken in the Wellington region, with Wellington Central's abundant supply of young activists recruited to help raise the party vote in opposition held seats of Ohariu-Belmont and Rangitikei.

Looking into the performance of Labour candidates during the last 3 elections, one could come to the conclusion that Labour was relatively slow with the transition across to MMP. In the 1996 campaign, Labour experienced first hand the rough end of MMP, when Winston Peters and New Zealand First held the balance of power, and subsequently formed an ill-fated government with National. During the election campaign, other parties (particularly National and ACT) showed that they had a better - although some would argue, badly executed - grasp of MMP than Labour did, exhibited with Jim Bolger's support for Richard Prebble in Wellington Central, at a time when ACT was hovering just below the 5% threshold, much to the publicly displayed annoyance of local National candidate, Mark Thomas. This effectively gave National a guaranteed coalition partner in ACT, at a time when New Zealand First looked unlikely to join with National.

Ten years after New Zealand voted for MMP, election results suggest that Labour has been the least adaptive to the change of the new electoral system. Labour is the only party represented in parliament that has never won a greater percentage of party votes than electorate votes, and this is reflected in the proportionately low number of list MPs Labour gets, in comparison with other parties. David Benson-Pope regards this as a trust issue: rather than give both votes to Labour, voters preferred to find "us a coalition partner". I personally will never forget being told by a middle aged women in Karori during the 2002 campaign, that she will "vote for Marian, but I'll never trust Labour after '84" (something to that effect). The painful reform period of the fourth Labour government still gives the party an unwelcome stigma, which it is finding very difficult to shake.

However, it would seem that Labour is in a much better position under MMP than National, due to the electoral system's lack of favouritism towards the traditional National-voting elites. Under first-past-the-post, unless you voted for the winning electorate candidate, your vote was effectively worth nothing. Also, the smaller rural seats (which were predominantly Labour held) were worth as much when it came to forming a government, as larger urban seats. However, under MMP, voters in rural electorates, with little real chance of having a Labour MP, do have an incentive to give at least one of their votes to Labour.

While parts of the electorate still hold a grudge against the Labour Party for the reformist period of the Fourth Labour Government, the election results of 1999 and 2002 indicate that the Labour Party is no longer the natural government of opposition, instead, it is the 'long term party of government'. Under Helen Clark's leadership, and a more favourable electoral system, the New Zealand Party system is falling into a Norwegian model, with a dominant leftwing party (Labour), and a largely fragmented rightwing.
Listed on BlogShares