The MMP game

Are the Conservatives even a good coalition option for National?

No but seriously.

Colin Craig’s hardline social conservatism does not mesh at all with John Key’s cheerful moderate liberalism. Neither do his nationalist, possibly slightly left of centre economics work with National’s neo-liberal tendencies. It seems that a National-Conservative coalition may fail in much the same way and over much the same issues, as the Shipley/ Winston schism of 1998.

Effectively, unless Winston Peters does a classic Winston, which is not necessarily out of the question, John Key and National have been left with one choice of coalition partner – one that is seemingly not compatible with them. ACT and United Future are on their last legs, and the Maori Party will not ally with National again if it wants to retain any shreds of its influence.

National are in this situation because they have not played the MMP game very well. And the MMP game has two outcomes: you either manage a coalition successfully, or you suffer defeat. (This was not meant to sound like a Game of Thrones reference).

In an MMP environment, the leader of a major party has to be an effective manager. It’s great if you understand and are involved with the legislation process, or lead from the front with wild and soaring rhetoric, but unless you can organise yourself and your coalition, you’re screwed. Part of being a good manager is being able to control your party, and the parties of those that you are allied with. This means making sure that one of those leaders is not giving away government secrets in the deluded hope that a journalist will go near him. It also means that you know that one of those leaders has committed electoral fraud before you set him up as your preferred choice in an electorate. It also means that you help others to avoid internal tensions that result in the formation of a new party that opposes you, and also coup attempts. If this doesn’t happen, then your allies will collapse and you won’t have a government any more.

In playing the game you also have to let your allies take some credit. If it seems that minor parties aren’t doing anything, then people will stop voting for them. Minor parties also (theoretically) occupy a niche on the political spectrum, which is why they are alluring for voters who are disenchanted by the mainstream. If that ideology vanishes because the party is eclipsed by its major ally, then voters will turn away. National has completely dominated its coalition partners. While ACT is identifiable as the creator of charter schools, and the Maori Party has Whanau Ora, I can name very little else that they have done. While it is important that a senior governing partner does not let its allies become too big to control, they also need to allow minor parties a recognisable role in government to ensure that they stay relevant.

A good chunk of National’s high polling is due to Key’s popularity, which may be slipping but is still formidable. However, this means nothing while they can’t hit 50%, and have no coalition partners. For the first time in MMP history we may see Labour form a government despite winning less of the vote than National, because they have a potential coalition partner that they are highly compatible with, but occupy their own space in the political field. If that’s not enough for a majority, they have the padding of Mana and at a stretch New Zealand First. Let’s hope that once they are in government Labour won’t attempt to dominate those other parties, undermining themselves and losing the MMP game in the process. National have not done this well, and are left with the lose-lose prospects of an unstable government, or no government at all.

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