I hate quoting myself but…

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

After a hectic campaign year in the blogosphere, your correspondent has been busy with other things and is still on a break from regular blogging. In the meantime, I urge you to enjoy the excellent series of posts on ACT’s early history by Dr. Bryce Edwards and indeed other posts on his academically-focused blog, Liberation.

I have particularly enjoyed his work on New Zealand First. In a recent post, Dr. Edwards takes a look at the party’s future with the help of a Herald on Sunday article, for which he was interviewed. While this may seem beyond the scope of this blog, as an (ex-)MMP party, there are many lessons ACT can learn from New Zealand First, including the role of the 5% threshold. While ACT’s circumvention of the 5% mark is undoubtedly a short-term blessing for the party, it is unlikely to be a long-term saviour. I placed the following comment on Dr. Edwards’s post:

Another excellent post Bryce. I’m somewhat surprised that of all papers the HoS is interested in investigating the future of an extra-parliamentary party – makes a change from house price and “drink drive mayhem” investigations. Well done to David Fisher on what seems to be a well-researched piece.

The future of the “MMP 1.0” parties like NZF, ACT and UF and the 5% threshold is something I’ve thought quite a bit about since the election. I’m not so sure the 5% threshold itself is the problem, but rather the gimmicks which exist to get around it. Currently we have UF, ACT and the Progressive (deliberately no plural!) trading off the gimmick which allows them to gain representation by winning one electorate seat. OK, UF and Progressive are just single MPs – de facto independents. But this was not more accidental than intentional – obviously they hoped for more votes on the day to gain another MP each. Then we have the Maori Party which trades off the reserved Maori seats.

I’m not criticising these parties for doing this – why wouldn’t you go for the safe route to get into Parliament, especially when you see the precarious positions of parties which try the gimmick-free route, such as the Greens and NZF? But the problem is the system – by having these gimmicks, risk-taking and the targeting of genuine niches and the creation of new cleavages is discouraged.

For example, if ACT had to get to 5% to stay in Parliament, I suspect it would have changed its tactics markedly to generate “wider” appeal – not in the sense of becoming more moderate, but more radical (think anti-beneficiary and anti-affirmative action campaigns – even anti-immigration). Since Hide has held Epsom, ACT has shied away from anything too controversial as it needs to hold on to the “blue-rinse”, more moderate elderly voters in Epsom – and not frighten the horses.

The only true 5% MMP party – in the sense it was intended – are the Greens. And well done to them – they’ve picked a niche which is substantive and sustainable (for want of a better word) enough to continuously attract enough voters election after election.

The case of the Maori Party is similar – because it can concentrate on winning just the Maori seats, it can afford to appeal to just a small percentage of Maori. Most Maori still give their party votes to Labour. If the Maori Party had to win 5% of the party vote – something which should be easily achievable when the Maori population in total is around 15% – it would also have to appeal to the many Maori who choose to be on the General roll. Again, this would probably mean more “extremist” views and a more defined position on the left-right spectrum, because the success of niche parties relies upon them being outliers to the mainstream parties.

Of course, the danger for parties like the Maori Party and ACT is that if they gave up their “safe but boring” campaigns based on quirks in the system, and only competed for a 5% share of the party vote, they could and probably would fail. Why? Because they are simply not popular enough and are children of their own time. Bryce is absolutely right that parties like ACT and NZF were offshoots of the neoliberalism debate of the 1980s and 1990s, just as the Maori Party was a product of the Seabed and Foreshore and Orewa speech debates of the early 2000s. Eventually the fervour and enthusiasm for the parties begin to fade and with it, the parties’ niches on the political spectrum.

The challenge for political actors is to create a timeless political party, peddling issues which are so perennial that they can fuel a party indefinitely. The rights of the working class is one such issue – that’s why Labour still exists after 90+ years, even though the working class has become today’s middle class.

The environment is another, which explains why the Greens are still going strong (and they are, despite some snide comments from the right since the election about the Greens’ “poor” performance of double ACT’s party vote result).

Finding such a long-life issue is easier said than done – and it’s almost certain that there isn’t one at the present time sufficient enough to excite a significant proportion of voters.

But 200 years ago, no-one would have seriously considered that a party based on representing the interests of the working class could prosper, because the working class as a proportion of the population as a whole was still insignificant – and of course the working class was disenfranchised anyway. And 50 years ago, no-one would have seriously considered that a party could prosper simply based on environmental issues, anywhere in the world. Another issue will arise, not today, not this year, but certainly in the future.

In the short run, parties which trade off the gimmicks in the version of MMP which New Zealand adopted are successful. They are in Parliament. New Zealand First is not. But in the long run, parties like ACT are in my view preventing the creation of genuine and substantive niches, both because they are preventing themselves from transforming and because collectively they mop up the vote which could go towards a third-party with a genuinely significant niche.

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