Why an absolute majority is absolutely possible for Labour

Common wisdom has it that winning an absolute majority in Parliament is all but impossible under MMP - could that change in 2020? There is some reason to think that any strategic voting could fall Labour's way, Liam Hehir writes

No political party will ever get an absolute majority of the seats in Parliament.

So goes the dogma - and there has been reason to believe the doctrine sound, given that the last time one party won a majority of all votes was 1951 and that was under the old FPP voting system

MMP was supposed to put paid to the two-party duopoly forever. Liberated from the need to win a relative majority in single member geographic constituencies, small parties were supposed to flourish and ensure power would be forever bridled.  

It worked - for a while. Not not even John Key was able to govern with National Party votes alone.

This year, however, the landscape looks a bit different. 

Successive polls have the Labour Party winning a clear majority of the party vote and National is in the doldrums. Unlike elections gone by, however, the faltering of the main opposition party has not paid windfall dividends to the smaller parties. 

The 'Pushmi-Pullyu' syndrome has proven reliably fatal for small parties in the past.  

New Zealand First’s recorded levels of support are well below the threshold required to return. The Greens are teetering on the edge of the same precipice. ACT seems to be experiencing something of a boomlet, but the chances are that it will still rely on David Seymour winning the seat of Epsom to be assured of representation in the new Parliament. 

The travails of New Zealand First and the Greens can be least partially attributed to the curse of being junior partners in a Labour-led government. This is always tricky because voters will punish you for causing instability and forget about you if you’re not causing instability. This Pushmi-Pullyu syndrome has proven reliably fatal for small parties in the past.  

ACT has not been subject to this, of course, as an opposition party. It's prospered as a result - but only to a point. When Labour was struggling, the Greens reliably pulled in double figures in the polls. ACT’s standout result this year has been five percent.

That’s a lot for a party that won less than 14,000 votes last election, but it’s still very much bush league. 

So if the National vote is down and the other parties haven’t been able to make hay from that, you would expect Labour to reap the rewards, which explains the incredibly strong and durable performance of the parties in the polls of late. But will that translate to an absolute majority on election night? 

National's vote has dropped some way from its 2017 performance, and those supporters seem more likely to end up with Labour than any other minor parties, Liam Hehir writes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Looking at the options available to voters, there is no reason to think the current pattern won’t hold. There are, in fact, strong reasons to suspect it will. Those once-were-National votes have to go somewhere, after all. 

Let’s say you are a centrist voter who could vote for National or Labour but, like most of the country, are not all that interested in the upscale gentry liberalism of the Greens. You see that National and ACT are far, far behind Labour and the Greens. New Zealand First does not appear viable and in any event would not be needed in a centre-left coalition. 

Then you consider the fact that, despite the devotion of her many more progressive fans, Jacinda Ardern is really pretty moderate in government. You would go so far as to say, even, that she’s a kind of conservative. She certainly isn’t promising the significant tax hikes that the Greens want. 

So in a situation where the two likeliest outcomes are either Labour governing alone or Labour in partnership with the Greens, what’s the best way to make your vote count? Labour, probably, if you’re not a hardcore National partisan.  

In this way, one of MMP’s most essential features may lead us to a very un-MMP result. The system is to make sure that every vote counts regardless of geographic location. It doesn’t necessarily follow that small parties will always be the beneficiary of this, however. 

Let’s try another example. Imagine you are a left-wing voter in the safe Labour seat of Palmerston North in 1987. You don’t want the hated Tories to get back in but you’re also pretty unhappy with Labour.

Will Labour be able to govern alone after the election? It would be an unlikely first in modern times. But there’s a first time for everything. 

However, because you’re completely confident that the Labour candidate is going to win regardless of what you do, there may be some value in sending the party a message. So you vote for NewLabour instead. 

In 2020, however, your party vote helps choose the government no matter where it is cast. Another way of looking at it is that it helps choose who will not be the government. And if the American phenomenon of “negative partisanship” continues to take root here, people will increasingly see themselves as voting against their opponents and not in favour of their champions. 

And that would tend to reduce the votes available to small parties. After all, why risk a protest vote when it could be used to keep an opponent out of office? For many National voters in 2020, that opponent will be the Greens – which means voting for Labour. 

Will Labour be able to govern alone after the election? It would be an unlikely first in modern times.

But there’s a first time for everything. 

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