Archive for the ‘democracy’ Category

I talked yesterday about what is the most urgent electoral reform in New Zealand, which is to dramatically lower the Party Vote threshold, preferably all the way to about 0.8%1

Kiwis have a recent tradition of liking electoral reform. We have a real streak of fair play about us, from wanting a more liberal and egalitarian society generally, to voting for smaller parties just to “keep the buggers honest.” We not only put national elections on a mostly-proportional MMP system, but we also implemented STV wards in some cities on local councils and for DHBs, and even an IRV2 vote for mayor in a couple places, too.

I attempted to canvas some party positions on social media yesterday, however I haven’t yet had any replies. The only electoral reform announcement we had recently was an old labour policy to implement the MMP review’s recommendations of a 4% threshold and removing the electorate lifeboat provision3. I will come back to this if I get some replies, so unfortunately I don’t have any concrete proposals from this election to talk about, but I will instead give you some ideas about where we could head in the future, while still keeping the best aspects that we as a country seem to like about MMP.

Electoral reform is a tricky thing to talk about, as to be really honest about it, you need to keep a mind to Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance in considering it4. I am being consistent in saying this, because although it’s currently the Greens and TOP facing a polling result near the threshold, we have had parties I dislike (more than TOP) facing that before and I have clearly said the threshold is wrong every election that has happened. The specific ones I am thinking of are New Zealand First and the Conservatives, but there was also a Christian party back in the day that merited a single list seat but didn’t get it. So let’s ignore for a moment what specific parties that would benefit from these proposals, and talk about Making MMP better, or even Transitioning From MMP to something even better.

Treat independents as overhang seats

Right now, there are different rules for Independent candidates winning an electorate, and parties that win more electorates than their Party Vote entitles them to list seats for. (I’ll call them “overhang parties” from now on) Currently, only those overhang parties get overhang seats.

Independents remove the 120th (and then 119th, and so on) list seat from Parliament right now. It hasn’t been a problem yet, because we haven’t had any independents in Parliament that haven’t simply split off from other parties since MMP, but I’m coming back to propose systems that will make them more attractive to elect, so this might be relevant if we go for those reforms, and besides, it’s simply daft to have different rules for each of them when our system to date has delivered for many more overhang parties than it has independent candidates winning electorates. And in terms of picking which rule we should use in both situations, I think it makes sense to use the rule whose results are easier to predict- it’s much easier to know what happens to parliament if we add an overhang seat than if we remove a list seat, and it actually violates proportionality less if add an extra seat, too.

The only good reason not to add overhang seats is if you’re worried that there could be so many that it drastically inflates the number of MPs and swamps the proportionality of Parliament. Right now, there is no indication that this is a serious worry.

Switch electorate votes away from FPP

MMP as we know it now is essentially a hybrid of two political systems, a Closed List system for the Party Vote, and 16x(1+ratio of North Island population to South Island population6) FPP electorate contests that can let people vote in candidates that might not be placed in winnable positions on their party’s list, or just guarantee smaller parties make it into Parliament.

While there’s no precedent for doing so, we could absolutely switch to IRV, STV, RV, or RRV for candidate votes in the medium term, or just because we like having MMP and want to make it better. Let’s go through them in three batches, as IRV and RV are the single-winner cases of STV and RRV and only need to be mentioned for their differences.

Such a system would technically no longer be MMP, (in fact, there’s no name for Closed List hybrids with anything other than FPP yet, so we’d get to invent it) although mostly it would function the same way.

The case for Single Transferrable Vote

STV would give us larger electorates, probably with 3 to 7 winners in each one. You would likely want to set a quota of at least two electorates for the South Island, and set a maximum of at most 55 electorate seat winners.

Each voter ranks as many candidates as they like when voting, but must write at least one number on their ballot to cast a valid vote5. When counting the votes, a “quota” is set to determine winners, an example quota is: 1 / (number of winners) + 1. So a three-winner electorate would require a candidate to win a quarter of the vote, assuming there are more than three valid candidates. (if there are only 3 or less, they are all automatically elected)

Then the votes are counted in rounds. Any candidate over the quota is elected immediately, and a new round begins. If no candidate is elected that round, the least popular candidate is eliminated.

In every subsequent round, the eliminated candidates have all their votes with lower preferences redistributed, and all votes with no valid lower preferences that can’t be redistributed are removed from the total. If a candidate was elected, a similar process is followed whereby their excess votes above the quota are fractionally redistributed. (ie. we look at where every vote for that candidate would have gone if they had been eliminated, and apply that as a ratio to their excess votes only)

We keep going through rounds until we have enough winners or we’re down to our last winner needed and only two candidates are left, in which case the most popular one with redistributed votes included wins the last seat.

STV is good in that your vote will, for practical purposes, likely count for at least one winner as long as you’ve ranked more candidates than there are available seats. It is largely immune to vote-splitting, although technically it can happen in certain edge cases. It’s also very hard to strategically vote in STV, as you would need hyper-accurate polling and a very close race in one of the rounds for it to be worthwhile.

But it has problems with expressiveness, complexity, and counter-intuitiveness: For instance, ranking every candidate and putting the ones you don’t like near the bottom can actually help candidates you ranked near-to-last, but it’s not obvious that you shouldn’t do this. Instead any candidate you don’t want to help, you should leave off the list.

Secondly, your vote becomes more effective if your list is longer. This isn’t obvious until you consider the fractional redistribution- that is, people who know what every single candidate is like and can list them all in order are more likely to effectively utilise the bonus of fractional redistribution of their vote. This means that the votes of high-information voters literally count for more, rather than simply figuratively counting for more where there’s an opportunity to vote strategically, so it kind of makes up for its relative immunity to strategic choices.

Thirdly, STV has some odd effects where ranking a candidate higher under certain circumstances can cause them to lose. It’s a result of its round-by-round tallying system. It’s also too complicated to be practically counted by hand, (arguably not a problem in terms of budget or practice, but really we should have a voting system where a winner can be declared even during a power cut) and you can’t provide provisional results. In short, it doesn’t get early results out very easily.

Having larger STV electorates would likely mean that each electorate would have at least one National and Labour winner, and we’d likely have a fair amount of Green and NZ First electorate winners, too. It would be harder to campaign for each electorate, but easier for more diverse winners to be picked. This would likely be good for non-Māori minorities as well as for smaller parties.

The case for Re-weighted Range Voting

RRV, or Re-weighted Range Voting, like STV, is a system designed for multiple winners, and it also uses rounds to determine its winner, although in a more limited way. You would likely want to set similar electorate sizes and quotas as for STV.

When voting, you would put a number in an arbitrary range (such as between 1 and 9, or 1 and 99. There are minor differences based on what range you select- eg. odd numbers without 0 let you evaluate a candidate as average, and larger ranges are more expressive, but more difficult to count, than smaller ranges) next to as many candidates as you wish, with higher numbers being better. It’s a more expressive system, because technically any number below average allows you to vote against a candidate, marking them as sub-par.

Some variations also take special consideration of candidates with no number next to them, or allow you to mark a cross next to them to indicate you’ve deliberately not voted for them. In those variants, you’re essentially saying you don’t know a candidate well enough to evaluate them. If plenty of people evaluate them anyway, that candidate’s rating is considered for winning a seat, but if a certain threshold of people don’t, say 75%, then they’re removed from consideration, so that you don’t get just a few enthusiasts electing an obscure candidate.

When the votes are counted, the first round proceeds as in normal Range Voting: An average is calculated for each candidate, and the candidate with the highest average (assuming they’re not disqualified for too few voters evaluating them) wins the first seat.

However, after this, each unique combination of votes is re-weighted according to a criteria. (there are several, each one effectively a different electoral system. The one I find most useful is “divide by distance above average,” so I’ll discuss it specifically from here)

In the second round we come up with a weighted vote for all candidates according to the criteria. In this specific example, everyone who voted for the first winner has all their remaining choices de-weighted, based on how enthusiastic their support for that winner was. (in 1-9 votes, this would be everyone who rated the winner 6 or above.) The next winner is selected based on the average of the weighted support, so that you don’t just get a tyrrany of the majority. This tends to spit out candidates proportional to popular support, but it also advantages compromise candidates, too. A candidate that everyone rates as 7/9 is much more likely to be a winner than one that 60% of voters rate 9/9 and 40% rate 1/1, because they’ll average out to somewhere around 6/9. Range voting works well this way because it penalizes controversy in balanced electorates, (other than of course, natural inclination away from boring politicians that penalizes centrists in general) but rewards it in unbalanced ones.

We keep re-weighting the votes based on the number and degree of support for winners, then picking a new winner until all the vacancies are filled. The weighting for the third and subsequent rounds is based on whether your original rating for a candidate was above average, not if the currently weighted value is above average.

This has several good effects:

  • The re-weighting algorithm incentivises you to be brutally honest about how much you support each candidate you think is likely to get elected, as you get “punished” less for a compromise candidate being elected, and not at all if you vote someone as average or lower. It arguably doesn’t punish you from exaggerating your support for a candidate you want/expect to win in the last round, however.
  • Compared to other RRV criteria, there is no perverse incentive to rate all candidates you dislike as 1s, which happens if your criteria includes increasing the weight of votes below the average, or decreasing the weight of all votes above the minimum.
  • How you evaluate one candidate has no direct effect on other candidates in the first round.
  • You can rate two candidates exactly the same, unlike in STV where writing duplicate numbers invalidates your list from that point on.
  • You can express the difference in your support between several candidates by having larger jumps between your ratings than a listed vote would allow, unlike STV where missing a number invalidates your list from that point on.
  • The winners will be proportional to both the reported enthusiasm of voters and their popularity with voters, making “displeasing nobody and pleasing nobody” a losing strategy.
  • There is no inherent advantage to rating more candidates, so the system respects low-information voters and treats them equally.

It also has some bad effects, mostly shared with STV:

  • It’s difficult, although not as practically impossible as with STV, to calculate the winner by hand.
  • Polling places have to report a count of each unique combination of votes, and as counting is done in rounds, you can’t release provisional results.
  • There is a disadvantage to rating more candidates above the average, as you become statistically more likely to have included the winner of an extra round before you get to the last round. (however, if you have good reason to believe that a candidate won’t win until after the candidates you most prefer, then the risk is lower in providing an honestly positive vote) This disadvantage becomes more prominent the larger the number of vacancies is in your electorate.
  • It makes electorates larger in compensation for giving you multiple winners.

The case for single-winner variants (IRV and RV)

Mostly, the case for single-winner variants, where we keep something like the current system, is the case for smaller electorates. You are more likely to capture communities of interest outside of large cities, and less likely to end up with large conglomerations of regional New Zealand.

Also, Range Voting is possibly the best single-winner system that exists, and unlike RRV, most of its disadvantages are arguably advantages. (ie. votes can count for less, but only if you decide to vote honestly in the mid ranges instead of voting 1s and 9s. It’s vulnerable to strategic voting, but basically turns into Approval Voting, also better than FPP, when that happens. (Approval is basically ‘tick as many candidates as you like’) It’s also not proportional, being a single-winner system)

I’m not a big fan of IRV, as in edge cases it’s actually possible for the candidate you ranked first to lose when they would have won if you ranked them second. (this is due to some oddity in the order of elimination being relevant. RRV  suffers to this problem to a lesser degree as a system that also uses rounds, but it doesn’t really effect the final round of tallying, and arguably if you manage to get all your strongly preferred candidates elected, you no longer care about diluting the weight of later votes, and STV suffers from this problem in full force, as well) If we’re using a single winner system, it should really be RV.

Couple a move to a proportional electorate system with some tough love for micro parties

If we choose STV or RRV, our electorate choices should also be proportional, giving us a compromise between national proportionality and regional proportionality.

If we chose one of the multi-winner systems, we could reasonably require party-affiliated candidates to have their party meet the threshold to be eligible for election7. This would discourage de facto independents like Dunne or Seymour from running as “small parties” in order to get more media attention, and instead paint them as the local curiosities they are. It would also incentivise parties like the Māori Party to contest both the Party and electorate vote, making it a dangerous strategy to shoot for too large an overhang. Coupled with a lower threshold and reforms of the rules for independents, and this would actually be a reasonable move, rather than the punitive one that simply removing electorate lifeboat provisions would be. It would also allow us to elect genuine independent candidates without disrupting the proportional allocation of list seats.

Adjust the South Island Quota

If we’re keeping single-winner electorates, we probably need to adjust the minimum number for the South Island soon, as we’re arguably closing in on having a number of electorates high enough that Labour might start getting overhangs if it gets a low result, and the two largest Party Vote parties shouldn’t really risk winning overhang seats. If we’re forming multi-winner electorates, we’ll need to adjust it anyway, because we’ll need to include language about both the number of electorates and the number of winners the South Island should get.

One way to do this is simply to say that the proportion of electorate seat winners in the smaller island out of North and South should be equal to at least their proportion of total voters when the boundaries are set, but that there shouldn’t be a disparity of more than, say, 25% of that ratio.  Then set a minimum and maximum to electorates in general- say that there should be no less than 40 electorates, and no more than, say, 55. This sets the rules in a way that works no matter what the demographics of each island are. (although it does seem unlikely that the North Island will ever have a smaller population, it’s not impossible that we get a large volcano erupting or something that drives people south) It also slightly over-represents the location where less people are, which seems fair so long as it’s only slight, given that they are still likely to get geographically very large electorates with disparate values.

Ditch electorates altogether and replace them with another way to directly vote

This one’s my favourite, but I think it’s a long shot, as New Zealanders are irrationally attached to their idea of “their local MP” thanks to decades under FPP. It might be practical once I’m old and everyone is more attached to list voting than they are now.

I talked about the list part of MMP being a “closed list” system. There is, of course, a perfectly proportional system with a built-in accountability method that’s still based on Party Voting.

It’s called, appropriately, “Open List.” The open part comes from the fact that while parties still provide their lists of candidates, you’re actually allowed to vote on them directly as a voter even after the internal selection processes have been finished. Currently, the Greens let members vote on their list, but they’re the only party that does it, as there simply needs to be some sort of “democratic process,” according to the law. In practice, this means you can simply have the party leaders choose their own delegates, and the delegates vote on candidate selection, which is just a roundabout way of doing backroom deals.

You can get variations on this system, based on how you handle list voting, for instance, you could leave ordering the candidate lists entirely up to the voter, and you could handle voting on them using any multi-winner system. (my two preferred options are listed above, RRV and STV) You could have the lists voted on as a primary, then hold a second-round general election with just a simple party vote, allowing low-information voters to skip the first round while still being heard in the second, or you could have a recommended list order from every party, and let people adjust it based on their votes on election day if they like.

You would likely still have candidates representing local regions, but it would be an informal arrangement, where parties genuinely have to campaign about issues popular in large enough regions to get moved up the list, rather than the arbitrary electorate boundaries we have now.

In Summary

To be clear, my interests in electoral reform are:

  • Make representation more proportional in all senses. (ie. give fair numbers of MPs to each party, have roughly 50% of MPs be women, and representative numbers of various races, and from various regions of New Zealand. Obviously, there’s a bit too many things going on there to balance those factors with also electing the best qualified candidates, so we’d expect a little variance. That’s okay, so long as that variance is both up and down. Historically, it’s just been down for every group except men, Pakeha, and recently Māori)
  • To provide avenues for smaller parties with popular ideas to grow into larger parties, so long as doing so wouldn’t adversely effect quality of government
  • To remove barriers that discourage people from voting. (We are already mostly good on this front, we just need to consider what effect reforms will have on voter interest)
  • To reduce the influence of rules that override the decisions of voters whenever doing so doesn’t adversely affect good media coverage of politics.
  • To ensure that geographically disparate ideologies that are still a significant portion of the population get fairly represented in Parliament.

I think, with the possible exception of giving some tough love to micro-parties, that all of these suggestions don’t contradict any of these goals, and generally meet multiple of them. I would love to hear feedback.

I think an Open List is the best way forward for all of these, but I can’t see New Zealanders supporting it just yet.
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Strap on your jetpack and leave, apparently. Andrew Little painted himself into a corner, commiting an unforced error by admitting he “offered to resign.” (but didn’t “offer to resign”) This is the sort of unprofessional slip-up we’ve come to expect from Andrew Little, but listening to his interview, you can tell he was trying to inartfully say that he laid his head on the chopping block for accountability and nobody decided they wanted to pick up the axe.

Politics editors all over the country were likely set to run a whole weeks worth of “will he should he” resign stories, and Little has done a strangely brave thing by simply pre-empting that discussion with an actual resignation. It’s a bit of a gamble: it brings back the “Labour is constantly changing its leader” criticism which Little had, largely, killed off during his tenure. On the other hand, he was looking very embattled, and his communications strategy clearly wasn’t working. I’m no comms manager, but even I could see that he was making amateur mistakes in interviews and taking punches when he didn’t even need to be in the ring. You could tell his heart was in it, but Little was dog tired.

I actually discussed last night what should happen after that interview, and said that whoever was responsible should quit, assuming it wasn’t Andrew Little. Well, apparently someone had the same first part of that thought.

But here’s the good news: Jacinda is now leader, and she’s set up in another Mike Moore type situation, except hers is a little easier to climb out of, because whatever your criticisms of Labour recently, it’s not in as dire a state as it was after Rogernomics. She seemed confident and at ease. She oozed confidence even when the media threw recent polling in her face, something that always tripped up Andrew Little. “Are you going to tell me I can’t?” she fired back to questions of Labour’s credibility to lead the government at 24%, and suddenly the adversarial nature broke slightly. This is not a woman to be trifled with, whatever your criticisms of her. She communicated with the media genuinely, effortlessly, and with humour. She looked like a leader, and as Clark has shown, Labour voters like a brainy woman in charge. I haven’t always been firmly on team Jacinda, but her press conference was impressive. She’s said she’s going to take stock for 72 hours, then start coming back with any changes needed. The Māori Party has already reached out, and new deputy Kelvin Davis1 managed to be reasonably graceful in saying he would listen but he wanted them to do better than they’d done under National, which is the height of reasonableness given that they were trying to engineer a Mana/Hone Harawira win in his electorate.

Metiria’s welfare announcement made me feel like the Green Party has turned a leaf, inspiring the base and pulling in new voters to the Green Party. Seeing Jacinda’s first moves as leader, ironically, I’m beginning to feel like stepping down as leader may end up being one of the best things Andrew Little could have done for the campaign, as desperate as it could be painted. Labour now has room to make the rhetorical turn it has desperately needed for months. It’s only 6-8% to go before the coalition equals National in the polls, and the under-covered story in recent polling is that National is still leaking support.

For the first time I can look at both opposition parties and feel like there are genuine messengers at the helm who are effective and getting things done. It is uphill from here, but I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ve all known Jacinda was being groomed for this, and after Clark, expectations on what it means to be a woman leading the opposition or the government are high. But so far, Jacinda seems to be smashing through the glass ceiling perfectly well, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t even find myself comparing her to Clark, which is high praise, because I constantly did so with Goff, Shearer, and Little. I look forward to seeing how she handles the campaign.

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I return, not with a wholly original take, but rather with an important rebuttal of one Martyn Bradbury.

A little context: This is a man who, once upon a time, was someone I looked up to. (Back when radio was still a thing and he ran a youth talkback show) Politically our opinions have diverged a lot while we both retain the same core philosophy. We both agree that large political institutions aren’t working for regular people and we both like inspiring radicals who want to end those problems, like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. I remain a Green, wheras I’m not sure Martyn has ever really decided if he believes in any particular political party, as I recall him supporting just about every Party to the left of United Future at one point or another, and it tends to be based on whichever one is opposing the current target of his indignation.

But in addition to his occasional forays into conspiracy theory and poorly founded political opinion, Martyn has now signed up for the “unite or die” philosophy on voting in trying to get people to change the government. While it is good to have him off the TOP cheerleading bandwagon now that he’s checked up on them and realised they intend to sit on the cross-benches rather than actually try to change the government, as usual he’s going about trying to convince people in entirely the wrong way. Those of you who have read other posts know my firm conviction that your vote is yours to decide what to do with, (even if I don’t like that decision, or even if you decide not to vote) and that neither parties nor pundits should be trying to bully anyone into giving it away to someone they’re not comfortable voting for, rather their duty is to earn your vote.

For a supporter of Sanders and Corbyn, Bradbury hasn’t got that left-wing movements tend to change governments by inspiring people. Left-wing voters want to fall in love with an idea, it’s right-wing voters, steeped in authoritarian values, who are more responsive to fear as a motivating force, which is why they’ve united around National and successfully turned out in large numbers whenever it’s looked like Labour is going to beat them enough with their tired, uninspring policies to get back into government. It of course doesn’t help that Labour has had a serious case of too many chiefs, but that’s a discussion not directly relevant to this post.

Bradbury is calling for people to “get over” their distaste with Labour’s tone on immigration, (and yes, it’s the tone, not the policy itself, that is the problem: voters are still looking at them like they’re trying to ape NZ First, because quite honestly, that seems to be the intention) and vote for a party that will change the government anyway, and dismissing all the critics as twitter liberals1. That’s a terrible pitch.

Firstly, if you want a party that’s left-wing but doesn’t hate immigrants, you have one choice that we’re sure will make it into Parliament, and that’s the Greens. They have an unabashedly pro-immigrant policy, but they also make a concession to the reality that the infrastructure necessary to support the amount of immigrants that want to go to Auckland will need some time to build up after National’s neglect, and so immigration settings will probably need to be a bit more selective2, while still having a policy that supports the rights of the new kiwis that are already here and the ones we plan to let in. You can also cross your fingers and party vote Mana, but personally I wouldn’t recommend the risk that until you’re sure Hone is coming back.

Yes, the Greens haven’t been out there tooting a liberal left-wing radical trumpet. This is a deliberate campaigning strategy they have been maintaining for several terms now, despite being just as liberal and just as left-wing as when Sue Bradford thought she could win the co-leader race. (and yes, many Greens would still welcome her back if she wanted to come) The fact is that running a moderate campaign that focuses on popular liberal and environmental messages has worked for the Greens, so they’re playing nice with Labour while focusing on the areas that have worked for them in the past, and trying to differentiate themselves from New Zealand First and Labour without burning any bridges. It’s a tough balance to juggle and I don’t envy James or Metiria their jobs in maintaining it. The fact is, however, that this is still a party with a policy package that is pretty damn left wing. They unapologetically support any liberal cause you could like, and they want to raise benefits, move towards a UBI system, legalise cannabis, and you know, basically hit every populist issue that’s out there. It’s hard to get further to the left than I am, and I whole-heartedly endorse their policies for this election, and believe that their candidates are committed to them and would do everything they can to advocate those policies in government. (or if necessary, from opposition)

If you’re okay with the immigration rhetoric and subtly dogwhistling to the less racially sensitive parts of NZ and are cool with voting for Labour, great. But don’t try and bully people into being okay by telling them they don’t have options. They do. I’ve heard from enough people uncomfortable with Labour’s positioning that even if they all didn’t like the Greens, they could probably get Mana in off the list if they all co-ordinated, campaigned, and voted for them.

And to those in Labour who aren’t comfortable with the rhetoric but also don’t want to leave because they are doggedly loyal, or because they actually like a centrist brand of politics, or because Labour has historically been good to their Māori or Pasifika community: The criticism isn’t aimed at you, and I wish you all the best in convincing the party not to engage in racist rhetoric in the future. But until that change in rhetoric eventuates, I’m not going to recommend anyone vote for your party, even if they’re not comfortable with their other options, because you can’t earn my respect this way.

New Zealand is a nation forged by an alliance between Māori and immigrants, and only a party that knows better than to betray that constitutional principle of our country has earned any co-operation from me or people like me. And that principle that immigrants willing to come here, work hard, and honour the people of the land should all be welcome is a core part of who we are. We can say we need some time to be able to provide immigrants we welcome in with an acceptable standard of living, (and it’s okay for us to use our own definition of acceptable there, rather than “whatever will still get people immigrating here,” because we as voters are the judges of what the kiwi standard of life should be) but closing the borders entirely, or pandering to people’s racial anxieties, strikes me as a fundamentally stupid idea.

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Lots of people in politics are fans of using the political compass system to describe politics, where we distinguish politics along two dimensions when talking about political ideologies instead of conflating both social and economic policy together in different ways for each nation when we pick the two words we use to describe political parties. This is especially helpful in systems like New Zealand, where we have 7 viable political parties at the moment. (assuming you define “viability” as “getting at least one MP elected”)

Some recent discussions have made me aware that not only are some people a little less familiar with the labels that discussing politics this way requires, but that we’re also missing a few relevant terms.

traditional poltical compass

Traditional political terms have largely focused on left-right or liberal-conservative divides

Usually this splits political dimensions into the economic/class aspect and the social/cultural aspect of politics. On this blog, I general refer to the left-right economic dimension of politics, and the liberal-conservative social dimension. It’s also sometimes called a “libertarian-authoritarian” social dimension, but both of these terms imply a lot more radical and specific political ideologies than liberal and conservative do, so I’m usually a fan of those names.

The original political compass site only gives us the most basic five: centrism, leftism, right-wing politics, “libertarianism,” (which in other sites is often substituted for “liberalism”) and “authoritarianism.” (likewise for “conservatism”) For a useful discussion, you really need at least nine labels for the various political positions, and if you want to get really technical, you probably want somewhere between 25 and 30 to try to translate the idea of a graph into colloquial language, even online.

It also doesn’t capture some complicated political variables that also operate on something of a spectrum, like degrees of nationalism, or of environmentalism, or monarchism-vs-republicanism, (or more generally, sovereignty versus independence, or federalism vs local democracy) etc…

Of course, every once in a while, you run into someone using a more specific political dictionary or reference that is technically correct elsewhere in the world, but places these political terms in a more regional context, when most of the political internet settles on using variations of left, right, liberal, and conservative. (sometimes substituting “tory” or “progressive” into the equation) For instance, in the US, liberalism still generally implies moderate right-wind leanings and a gradual approach to social reform. This isn’t anything inherent about the idealogy, it’s just how the democrats that call themselves liberals in the US have conducted themselves in congress. Confusingly, this old definition comes very close to neoliberalism, which is just the modern version of classical liberalism, which is not the same as generic US liberalism, which is generally in the Democratic party, and is also different to the Australian Liberal Party, which is actually to their right. To all of them I say: stop confusing people. When people use “liberal” as an adjective anywhere outside the US or Australia, it’s generally to refer to a freedom-oriented approach to social issues.

With all that confusion, we find ourselves maybe needing some extra terms, because actually we routinely do discuss all 25 spots on our 5×5 table of two-dimensional politics, and less loaded generic terms, as traditional names for complicated areas on that political graph can get you maybe 19 of the 25 really relevant areas, when really we need a full 26 terms to describe what we’re talking about, and they don’t follow any sensible system. (We need 26 because we need two terms for the middle so we can distinguish between the social and economic centre when talking generically, four names for the orthogonal extremes, (ie. right, left, liberal, conservative) four names for the diagonal extremes that mix the previous four together, eight moderate versions of the the eight previous extremes (ala “centre-left”) and another eight names for those with opinions on both dimensions but who value one dimension over the other, such as leftist liberals who value the economic politics more than social ones) The other confusing thing about using the traditional terms is that “liberal” shows up all over them with different meanings. Oh, and we can’t use the term “social” for conservatives, because they hate that word too.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

generic political compass

Here we have a systematic approach to generic political labels. I have used the word “clutural” to describe people with more socially-oriented politics for international portability. I’ve stuck with “moderate” for the four extra diagonal centrist positions, because mixing “left” or “right” with “centre” in a larger term sounds stupid. The hidden 26th term is that “moderate” refers to social centrism, and “centrist” to economic centrism, re-using the distinction between British terminology for economic dimensions and American terminology for social dimensions that people already engage in. Most sucessful centrists are really only centrist in one of the two ideologies in order to fill a political gap elsewhere, so arguably there are also “conservative centrists,” “left moderates,” “liberal centrists,” etc… that can replace terms like “centre-left” if you prefer.

And yeah, the “circle” around the outside full of liberal-leftists and right-liberalists are a little confusing, I admit, but it could catch on as a way to describe the “north by northeast”-type directions on our political compass. I also considered terms like “right-conservatist,” for the lower half of the graph, but at that point it began to sound silly, as “liberalist” at least sounds like it should be a word, so I left out the quicker alternative names on the bottom half of the chart. (for the short names in the x-by-xy spots, whichever part is first is the one the emphasis is on, so if liberal is first, it’s cultural, and if left or right is first, it’s economic) Feel free to talk about conservative leftists and conservative rightists though instead of cultural left- or right-conservatives, those actually sound like words.

Under these generic terms, you actually have political-compassy ways of describing some more complicated political idealogies. Neoliberals are Right-liberalists. Tories are Right-conservatives. Greens are Left-Liberals. Neoconservatives are Conservative-leftists. Libertarians are (normally) right-liberals, or maybe sometimes they’re Liberal-rightists, and Left-liberatarians are Liberal-leftists, which is what the old Whigs of their day roughly were.

In the New Zealand  political parties context, here are my estimations:

  • Labour are centre-left. (or, if you prefer, a coalition of leftists, liberal-leftists, left-liberalists, and economic left-conservatives that generally average out to somewhere between “centre-left” and “moderate left-liberal”)
  • National are a coalition of right-wingers. (including right-liberalists, and both types of right-conservatives)
  • ACT is a single right-liberalist who nobody takes seriously.
  • United Future is centre-right.
  • The Māori Party is the hardest to place but are probably wander between being moderate left-liberals when working with Labour to being moderate right-liberals when working with National. Somewhat like New Zealand First, they have a nationalist bent to their politics, but it is a specifically Māori one rather than a xenophobic one.
  • New Zealand first are centrist conservatives on most issues, but they can wander into left-wing and liberal politics from time to time too, as their defining political attribute is nationalism rather than economic or social politics.
  • And as everyone expects, both the Greens and Mana are both left-liberals, with the Greens having an environmentalist dimension to their politics, and Mana having a Māori nationalist one.
  • The alliance were probably left-liberalists when they were around, and ironically, the Progressive Party’s brief stint in the Clark era had them probably showing up as economic left-conservatives.

Hopefully people find these ideological distinctions helpful in discussing politics. I hope they also stop people reaching for those archaic variants on the word “liberal,” as politicians everywhere have tried to corner the rhetorical market on derivative words of “freedom.”

For those who know me personally, they usually find this particular opinion of mine surprising. I am a fan of online practically-everything-else. Online games, online food ordering, online shopping in general, online tax, online civil service in general, online insurance, email contacts online, online OIA databases, you name it, I think it’s a reality of modern business and a good thing too.

But I think online voting is a terrible idea, at least at the moment, and possibly inherently, and given that previous paragraph, you should take that opinion all the more seriously, because I would love it if we could square the circle and find a practical way to vote online. I just don’t think it will work.

Why? Well, I’m gonna have to delve into more election nerdery to explain. To start with, there are three critical things to running a good election, that will seem to be contradictory but won’t be once we define them narrowly. They are:

  • Security/Integrity
  • Transparency/Verifiability
  • Secrecy

What do I mean by those three words, and how aren’t transparency and secrecy contradictory requirements? Well because they’re secrecy and transparency of different aspects of an election, namely a secret ballot but a transparent process.

Transparency means you need to be able to tell from the means you use to vote that it will be counted as intended (assuming you actually followed the voting instructions, anyway) if delivered to an honest actor. This is why paper is such a great medium for voting- you mark your ballot, either with a pen or punch machine, and put it into a sealed box so it can’t be spoiled until someone with the key to count it comes along, and it can be secured adequately through purely physical means, and quite easily so. The only people you have to trust are honest are the counters, and they cross-verify, so they’d need to all be part of a conspiracy, or all make a mistake, for them to miscount your vote. Likewise, election officials also need to be able to tell who has voted, not just for statistical research, but also for security purposes. Paper ballots are the best way we currently have to do both of those things at once, especially as you can seperate the metadata part of the ballot from the rest in the counting process so that the people who need to see voter identities to prevent fraud can’t physically go and match that metadata to how a person voted. There is no good way to do that with digital voting. This is sometimes called transparency because for a voter to really be able to understand that any machines involved aren’t fraudulently affecting their votes, they need to actually be able to see and understand how the machine operates, thus the best voting machines are literally translucent so you can watch them doing their thing.

Secrecy, or having a “secret ballot,” refers to a very different part of the process, namely, it means that nobody can prove how you voted, or violate your privacy. The people counting the ballots don’t get to see the database of who voted on which number ballot, and the people who do get to see the metadata about how voters connect to ballots don’t get to see the actual ballots, or if they do, the metadata parts are seperated from the actual vote. The poll workers don’t get to inspect your ballot, but they do get to see that you’re not interfering with other voters, usually through some sort of privacy booth or privacy shield. There are some very narrow situations where it may be arguably better to allow certain voters to cast a non-secret ballot, (for instance, voters who can’t reliably mark a form but trust a friend, family member or carer to assist them) but by-and-large the secret ballot is a critical part of elections.

I’m pretty convinced that it’s fundamentally impossible to marry those two objectives with internet voting, and most approaches also cause issues with integrity. What do I mean by integrity? Well, basically, we should be able to assume that if anyone casts a fraudulent vote through any means, we should be able to easily find out and disregard that vote before a final result is declared, and therefore we should never have to “overturn” the results of an election because we later detect fraud after the fact. In short, the election needs to be secured against vote-tampering, and the public needs to see that it has been secured and have confidence in the measures taken. Some of this security relies on a lack of collusion between other parts of government and the part running the election, but once you have a truly independent election authority, it’s pretty hard to do any sort of mass fraud, so it’s largely down to preventing critical gaming of the election system, or catching people dumb enough to interfere in ways that may not make a significant difference, such as voter impersonation.

There are non-online election methods that don’t rigorously meet these three criteria too, but to my knowledge, most national-level elections in a developed country do, with the exception of the USA, which fails terribly on integrity, mainly due to partisan corruption of their electoral institutions, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

New Zealand has a vote-by-mail system for local elections and sometimes for citizens-initiated referenda. Vote by mail is not secure, and it’s not secret, and it has some other less-critical problems with it, too, but it’s probably the most practical way to hold local elections if we don’t want to synchronize them with national ones.

How is voting by mail insecure? Simple. People can commit the crime of stealing each others’ ballot papers. If they’re smart, they will do so for people who are away at the time of the vote or who are registered but won’t notice the ballot is missing. There is no actual way to tell that the person who filled out and mailed back the ballot is the person who was supposed to vote with it, so voter impersonation, while not a problem in in-person voting, is an unknown unknown in vote-by-mail. I would trust such a system for institutional elections that nobody outside the institution knows about and where there’s no guarantee anyone aware of the election will know anyone else’s address, but that’s about it.

How is voting by mail not secret? Because there’s no observers, partial or impartial, to ensure that nobody looks at your ballot or coerces you into voting a certain way. This means that people are vulnerable to coercion as to how they cast their votes, as for example, an abusive/controlling parent or spouse can verify whether they’ve voted the “correct” way before they mail in their ballot. Technically, any system where you have the ability to match up a person to a ballot is vulnerable to this sort of coercion, even if that proof of how you voted can only be showed after the election has finished- you can still be threatened with future violence, or have your vote bought with rewards or cash, so long as you have some method to 100% demonstrate how you voted. We’ll come back to internet voting after another example of a bad election method.

I mentioned we’d also talk about the insecurity of US voting. The USA relies on voting machines manufactured by partisan businesses to conduct voting in several states. These voting machines run proprietary software, and in many cases voters can’t verify the paper trail themselves before the vote is finalised, or sometimes even at all. They are thus highly vulnerable both to individual voters bypassing their security and hacking them, (there are videos online of how to do it, in fact, for certain models) and of manufacturer tampering to fix the vote for a certain party, which there is some statistical suspicion might have occurred in the last handful of elections. (it was maybe even critical to Trump’s win of certain northeastern states) Anything that tells you on a screen you’ve voted a certain way can be lying to you if you can’t physically see a way to verify otherwise. It can be programmed to switch a selection of votes from the party the manufacturer doesn’t prefer to the one it does.

Basically the only way to secure a machine against provider fraud is to have its software be open source, (and even then, you need to be able to read code to personally verify that your vote is going the right place, and you need to be sure that the open-source code is actually what’s running on the election machines) however doing so means that if there are any technical vulnerabilities, they are incredibly easy to find. That’s okay if you secure the physical machines and they are disconnected from any and all networks, and if any hardware that could be used for vote tampering by officials or by voters is put in plain view rather than part of the booth or behind the shield that voters will use for privacy. The US largely doesn’t take those preventative measures, because the rules are set by whichever political party is currently in charge of the state, (as the constitution highly limits federal election law for some strange reason) and there is thus huge incentive to game the system, as the official responsible for the integrity of voting in the state has no requirement to be non-partisan. (in fact, the Secretaries of State (not to be confused with the federal one, who is the equivalent of a Minister of Foreign Affairs in a New Zealand context, these are like having 50 local CEs of the electoral commission each making different rules) are often overt partisans)

Traditional internet voting based on a single secure database system or network has all the problems of both vote-by-mail and of US voting machines, with the possibility of online hackers who can compromise the system without even bothering to go phishing for passwords added into the mix. (You also have to remember that the possibility for interference opens up to the rest of the world once you put the system online, so you’re making yourself vulnerable to foreign agents who could never set foot on your soil, too) I’m willing to go on record as saying I think it’s logically impossible to secure such a voting apparatus to a level that’s necessary for national elections, especially as the added problem of hacking makes it much more difficult to verify within an acceptable timeframe whether all the relevant information is authentic. (because instead of being to trust all the meta-information you’ve received about what barcode belongs to what vote, it’s possible that such information has been faked. So you can’t rely on the receipts from the system about how many people voted online until it’s been cleared of digital interference, which is a process pretty vulnerable to false negatives)

Some people are proposing blockchain voting systems. Blockchain is the distributed verification technology behind BitCoin and many similar cryptocurrencies, which is basically a protocol for distributed databases. Such systems could be acceptable for non-critical elections, like organisational ones, or maaaaybe local body voting and referenda. The difficult thing is, the ones that I’ve seen that in principle could be secure are fundamentally incompatible with a secret ballot.

Why? Because they rely on distributed ballot databases and a layer of public key/private key cryptography. Effectively, anyone can sign up to the blockchain and they get a copy of the database. Then whenever a change needs to be made, it’s submitted to a certain number of known holders of the database and tagged with the public key that requested the change, and all of those members of the blockchain ensure that they communicate that change to all other members of the blockchain they’re connected to, until it trickles through the distributed network. This means that any attempt to compromise the database has to simultaneously hit the entire blockchain to work, or anyone that they’ve missed will detect an error. That’s very good for security.

And to vote, someone would need to compromise your private key, which you personally control, so on that front you’re actually a little more secure than vote-by-mail, maybe. I’ll come back to this in a second.

However, it also means that some form of public identifier has to be attached to every vote. While that information is theoretically anonymous, in practice it can be tracked back to an individual. Blockchains rely on tracking where information comes from in order to maintain security, and public keys can be traced back to specific IPs and timestamps, which means they can be traced to specific users, which means you no longer have a secret ballot.

Likewise, the ability to use the private key also allows you to demonstrate to anyone watching you vote online who you voted for at the time of the election at a bare minimum, if not afterwards too, and you are also able to deliberately compromise your private key and let someone else vote for you, again opening up voter coercion. Any system where there isn’t a way to verifiably observe people voting in a way that is seperated from observing what they vote for is fundamentally insecure. You could arguably do so through webcams, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that the video data wouldn’t be fake without secure hardware, which defeats the economies-of-scale to online voting.

You could use such a system in contexts where a secret ballot isn’t necessary, such as local direct democracy, or organisational elections. But it’s fundamentally vulnerable to identities being compromised, because it relies on keeping those identities semi-public to secure the vote.

This is without even getting into the non-critical problems with online voting, such as the fact that when there’s not a specific Election Day, people will often forget the deadline and not vote in time. This is a big problem with voting-by-mail, too, which makes online voting actually a problem for turnout rather than a solution when it’s used as the primary voting method rather than in supplement to in-person voting.

Blockchain methods might be suitable for a sort of public-ballot electronic direct democracy on local issues where voter coercion, fraud, or voter harassment aren’t as likely to be problems, but that too has its issues, such as the “self-selecting oligarchy” problem with inclusive, high-volume democracy: that is, it’s so work-intensive to vote on every local issue that only very enthusiastic people tend to show up for it with any regularity, thus those with the time and/or interest tend to form an oligarchy among those who are actually eligible, as they usually hold the majority of votes on any given issue. You can also have the opposite problem of tyrrany of the ambivalent, where people who are only tangentally effected by on issue flood in and force a decision that key stakeholders hate. These are general democratic challenges of course, but electing representatives helps smooth them out a bit, wheras direct democracy is a little more difficult.

So, in conclusion: No to online voting for now, and probably no forever, as I’m pretty sure it’s logically impossible for online voting to hit all three critical points at once, and I am actually a fan of representative democracy. It provides a level of guarantee of human rights, it helps smooth out how democracy functions between the boring issues and the ones of great public interest, and quite frankly, it’s easier to keep democracy slightly at arms lengths from the average voter, so we can keep their powder dry in terms of democratic participation for when it’s really needed, rather than subjecting them to constant voter fatigue.

For those of you not following international news, Scotland is beginning the process of nicely asking the UK government to please let it vote on whether it still wants to be part of the UK, again, please and thankyou. While Scotland can’t really hold a binding vote without the UK saying so, the UK also can’t really claim to legitimately represent Scotland if it refuses a well-founded request for a referendum, and there is a lot of evidence that suggests that the tide may now have turned in favour of Scottish independence from the UK, and its re-admittance into the EU. It’s a bold power-move on the day before Theresa May was expected to trigger Arcticle 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, basically pushing the one-year timer on leaving the EU. It has turned Westminster’s vision of a new, global Britain upside down, and arguably into what it already is: a path that risks the very future of the United Kingdom itself, stoking Scottish nationalism and calls for Irish re-unification. Theresa May, of course, has denied that the timing Nicola Sturgeon wants is practical, and will turn down such a referendum proposal. This of course, puts the onus back on the UK government to outline when they would consent to a referendum, which of course has strategically been kept quiet, because it’s more about trying to bully Scotland into staying than actual concerns around the Brexit negotiation. We’ll see how the showdown between the two works out, but so far I’m scoring it to Scotland overall.

For those who are not aware, I am actually a United Kingdom dual national, and have lived (briefly) in England, but the advantage of living in New Zealand for most of my life is that I can have a degree of understanding of the UK while still being seperate enough to see it from the outside. My position has been that the UK is England-centric, and needs to reform its government on a federal basis with a more representative voting system if it wants to hold on to the other three countries-within-its-country, and that if Scotland really want to be independent they should get their wish. (At which point, I would probably never return to the UK to live even briefly, as it would have gone so far downhill as to hold no appeal- nobody will really like a UK where the Tories have a stranglehold on politics once they’ve experienced it, in my opinion)

The Scottish Nationalist Party (which controls the majority of both the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish seats in the UK Parliament) is coming under some arguably unfair criticism that this is part of a “neverendum,” (ie. continuously polling people on independence referendums until one succeeds and then immediately declaring victory) of trying to set up IndyRef2 to lead to a more winnable IndyRef3, (which is not only stupid tactically, but just plain wrong- that timing argument revolves around the misconception that the Referendum is being proposed before relevant details of the Brexit deal are finalised, when in fact the parts Scotland most strongly objects to have already been determined by a Tory UK government, and the First Minister insists on a finalised Brexit position from the UK before a vote happens) and of simply trying to derail Brexit, to which I’d argue you can’t derail something by desperately searching for a pair of rails to get it back onto.

To understand a bit of what’s going on, we need to rewind a little bit before starting on the current situation, and talk about how the EU ended up a little more complicated than an in-or-out relationship. The UK was a lot more “out” already, pre-Brexit talks, than most European nations get to be. It had a special dispensation from the Eurozone, (the name for the area formed by countries which use the Euro as their currency) which Scotland will not get if it rejoins, and an exemption from the Schengen Agreement, which requires abolition of border controls between participating countries, which Scotland would likely also need to agree to in order to re-join the EU. Instead of Schengen, the Republic of Ireland and the UK are in a special exemption that was known as the “Common travel area,” where they’ve agreed to freedom of movement, but still retain the right to check people’s passports and ensure they’re actually EU nationals before admitting them into the UK. This was considered a reasonable compromise for the island nations at the time freedom of movement was proposed, however now that the EU has a formal agreement under the Lisbon Treaty, any new members have to sign up to being 100% in the EU, rather than getting to pick and choose like those who were part of its formation got to. This situation hasn’t differed from the first independence referendum.

The UK is currently part of the European Economic Area, or “single market,” (the EU’s free-trade zone, essentially, which is actually a little bit wider than just EU members) but the Conservative government aims to leave as part of its “hard Brexit” approach, as it’s not possible to opt out of Freedom of Movement, which it wants to do to control immigration, without also leaving the single market. Prior to the Brexit vote and change of Prime Ministers it necessitated, it was considered a ridiculously hard-line position to propose a hard Brexit, as it would essentially be giving away much of London’s financial services industry, either to Ireland or to continental European nations, and none of the leaders of the Leave campaign wanted to commit precisely to a hard Brexit, maintaining that free trade with Europe was possible while still clawing back those immigration powers. (and in the long term, maybe it will be, but not immediately post-exit)
This is as opposed to a “soft Brexit” approach, which is likely what Cameron expected his opposition to advocate, and what was Nicola Sturgeon’s bottom line for Scotland, where the UK would negotiate an exit deal similar to Norway where it retained some degree of free trade and freedom of movement, but could discard roughly 75% of European laws and access/membership of many European institutions in favour of return of sovereignty to the United Kingdom. (which is why a lot of the Remain campaign insisted that Brexit meant either economic shock or inability to claw back control over immigration policy)Now that we’ve covered a bit of EU basics, we can return to Scottish independence. The first independence referendum was an interesting campaign, that largely failed due to two critical campaigns from the No campaign, which was aggressively backed by English MPs:

    That Scotland would be given new powers and the UK would transition to a “near-federal” model.That Scotland would risk its EU membership if it voted for independence, as there was no procedure set up by the EU for secession within member states granting membership to the new nation.

Post-Brexit, many prominent European leaders have made guarantees to Scotland that if they do achieve independence, they will be welcome back in the EU, so let’s dispense with that second argument already. It’s not relevant, everyone knows Scotland has a place in the EU if it can achieve its independence. In retrospect, claims that Scotland risked its EU membership by becoming independent were effective but erroneous scaremongering.

How went the promise of new powers for Scotland? Well, the UK agreed to take less tax away from the local administration… and then promptly went on to kick Scottish MPs out of votes relating solely to England, (making clear that England views the UK Parliament as an English Parliament, belying again that promise of near-federalism) and then in order to secure its Brexit powers in court, sucessfully argued it didn’t need to get permission from Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland to initiate Brexit, even though the law explicitly required it.

Scotland has been agitating since the Brexit vote for a “soft Brexit,” that is, they don’t want England to wreck the entire UK’s economy in its determination to leave the EU. This isn’t an unreasonable position, although it’s unclear whether a compromise between the two positions of the largely-English UK Government and Scottish assembly is even possible, let alone what it would look like. The UK Parliament in Westminster has, essentially, ignored the Scottish Assembly in Holyrood, and proceeded precisely as it wishes thanks to that fundamentally wrong court decision.

So now we’re back to the independence referendum, and Scotland has a legitimate argument that the promises they were made in order to secure a “No” vote have been violated, that their assumption that “No” secured their place in the European Union is clearly incorrect and their attempts to compromise on a soft Brexit have been ignored, and that frankly public opinion may be changing in favour of independence.

This new case for independence is going to pit re-joining the EU against remaining in Brexit Great Britain. And there are disadvantages to both sides- Great Britain means that Scotland’s remaining oil revenue will likely go to collective UK spending, that Scotland will continue to have minimal impact on UK policy, and will be subject to a much more conservative Westminster Parliament controlling much of its law, and even stealing back powers that Scotland currently has.

But rejoining the EU will mean adopting the Euro, which means that Scotland would be vulnerable to potential future crises like the Greek Debt crisis. It also means that Scotland will have difficult financial problems to solve, as current estimates are that it’s a net beneficiary of UK spending compared to its tax take, and under the EU it is likely to be a net taxpayer rather than receive net subsidies. It will have to deal with the realities of joining the Schengen zone. It may be stuck with a UK Northern Ireland to its west and England to its south if calls for an Irish re-unification don’t eventuate, and there will likely need to be some sort of border procedure with England if Scotland does re-enter the EU, as there is no way that England will accept open borders with a country in the Schengen zone. It will also mean a wait for Scotland to rejoin, as it will have to go through the application process, which will mean that Scotland will need to be prepared for life outside of not only the UK if it votes for independence, but also outside of the EU for at least a few months, or even years. It’s also worth noting that the staunchest opposition to Scotland’s re-admittance, from Spain, seems to have softened now that it’s not being compared to the Catalan situation so much.

Scotland is smart to push for IndyRef2 now, while the Article 50 negotiations on the UK leaving the EU are still in the future. If Westminster shows reluctance to allow a Scottish vote on independence, it’s highly likely that as part of their determination to punish the UK for leaving, leaders who are militantly pro-EU will likely push for guarantees for Scotland and Northern Ireland to be able to determine if they want to split and re-enter the EU, as EU members are pretty adamant that the UK will be choosing between what it would call a “bad deal” or “no deal.”

And unlike the first independence referendum, if this one eventuates, it will be much more difficult to find Scottish organisations willing to front another “No” campaign- Scottish Labour has all but collapsed, and all the promises that helped the “No” campaign out last time won’t be credible after Theresa May’s strongarm position on devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

So, I’m noticing, again, that people aren’t very up on the combination of maths and political speculation that you’ll need to understand who’s likely to form the next government.

Firstly, let’s be clear, there are only three parties parties in Parliament right now who have either clearly commited to who they’ll support or for whom it’s obvious despite the fact nobody’s bothered to ask them. Of course David Seymour/ACT will support National. The Greens have been very clear they have committed to support Labour to change the Government. And Peter Dunne/United Future, while they have worked with Clark’s Labour Party, will of course support National ahead of them given half a chance.

Naturally, Labour and National will lead their respective blocs, so if you’d like to count that, there are five parties who you can safely vote for knowing what sort of government they’d support.

There are a couple of things that are unclear. Mana will of course be more likely to support a Labour government if voted back in to Parliament, however will likely be on the outside of any arrangement if Labour is actually governing, so the uncertainty there is in whether people are willing to forgive Hone for his willingness to work with Kim Dotcom. Given that the Māori Party have stood aside and essentially endorsed him, however, he’s not discountable. I wouldn’t be surprised at either a Mana or Labour win in Te Tai Tokerau.

I won’t speculate on the odds of Dunne losing Ōhāriu at this stage, other than to say both Labour and Peter Dunne need to be taking that electorate deadly seriously, especially as I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a significant chunk of it who are fans of neither of the two likely candidates. They will need to reach out to supporters outside of their usual base to win, which is presumably behind Peter Dunne’s hilarious inability to find fonts that support macrons.

This brings us to the two wildcards. Firstly, the Māori Party, who have said they will make a reasonable attempt to work with whoever’s in government, but haven’t talked at all about what happens if they decide the next government. While they’ve most recently been in a non-coalition support arrangement with the National Party, there’s no real certainty that they would support them over Labour. In fact, the List party they best align with on the issues is the Green Party, so if we’re going purely on policy, they might well support Labour. With Tariana Turia’s retirement from the party, the historical disagreements with Labour could be a lot less of an obstacle to doing a deal. In my models, I’ve assumed they will be open to working with governments of both stripes, but I consider them a reverse UF- in that I slightly suspect they will prefer a Labour government if it’s their choice, although I don’t have any hard evidence to back that speculation.

And then there is New Zealand First, who like the Māori Party, haven’t publicly chosen sides yet, and don’t even have the excuse that they still intend to work with both parties, as they’re currently sitting on the opposition benches, collaborating quite nicely with Labour and the Greens. They look like they’re set up to change the government, but they have pulled a switch on their supporters this way before back in the first MMP government. Have they learned their lessons from that? Nobody knows.

Lastly, there’s a little election system maths to consider. The number of overhang seats will be important in this Parliament, as National will need to win a similar percentage of the Party Vote to last election to stay in power, which was already a bit of an ask with John Key at the helm instead of Bill English. They’ll also want a bit of padding, as no government has ever won a by-election under MMP, so if any of their MPs resign, they’ll likely lose a seat.

If all the minor parties win seats, that’s likely to be three overhang seats in Parliament, meaning the “magic number” becomes 62/122-123, not 61/120-121. There’s also a credible chance of an independent upset in Ilam, which would have the weird effect of not changing the number of seats in Parliament at all, but rather robbing whoever would normally have won the 120th list seat of their extra MP. That’s likely to be either National or the Greens, depending on how close the Greens end up getting on their last MP allocation, or on an outside chance it may be Labour. (it’s highly unlikely to be the Māori Party, as small parties generally get allocated their seats way before the end of the process) For those not aware, essentially there’s a divisor formula that goes through and outputs a number for each party with Party Votes, and every one that’s over the threshold or has an electorate gets thrown into the formula. Whoever’s number is the highest gets the first seat, and then their divisor is recalculated on a less friendly basis, and the next-highest number gets a seat, for 120 iterations. Independent MPs are the only disruption to this process- small parties simply get their electorates as overhangs if they don’t qualify for a list seat on the basis of their Party Vote. While Raf Manji is likely to vaguely support National, he does represent a wildcard in terms of who loses a seat to him, and it’s actually as likely to hit Labour or the Greens in the face as it is to cause disruption to a National government.

What are the important takeaways?

  1. It’s very likely that whoever governs after the election will need 62 seats, as I don’t consider it a serious likelihood that both Dunne and Harawira will lose their electorate votes.
  2. If National wants to govern, they need those 62 seats without the Māori Party or New Zealand First, if at all possible. It’s entirely realistic that the National Party could win 59 seats for themselves but lose the government because they only have two seats worth of solid friends, and both the less predictable parties decide to swing Labour’s direction. Likewise, Labour will want a situation where they can narrow the margin enough that they have a choice between New Zealand First and, say, the Māori and Mana MPs, so that he’s not forced into too much of a pro-nationalist agenda, but such a situation looks rather unlikely at the moment without National seriously dropping the ball, or Little scoring some serious body blows on English that he just hasn’t gotten a chance to do yet.
  3. It’s highly likely that New Zealand First will decide who gets to govern based on current polling, if it holds accurate, and if events don’t shift too fast for our sporadic polling to measure accurately. The chance of National governing without them is pretty slim, although it’s now within the realm of reasonable probability. I expect the recent trend back to National to have arrested with the announcement of Jacinda Ardern as deputy, but we’ll see if that eventuates. I also expected that the dip on English becoming PM would become a trend, and that hasn’t eventuated yet, possibly due to poor capitalisation on his weaknesses on behalf of Andrew Little, but again, this is where Jacinda will actually serve very well as deputy: she’s far more persausive with the emotive argument that the Government is failing people than King was, even though Annette King was a highly effective MP and debater, she doesn’t have Ardern’s charisma.
    1. Relevant to Ardern, it’s rather hilarious that the media is now openly speculating on whether it causes a problem for Labour if she overtakes Little in popularity. The answer is no. That’s a great problem for Labour to have, and it’s likely she would want to do further work before even considering the No. 1 spot in her party, so expect for that to happen at some stage and for Jacinda to endorse Little as leader even when she’s more popular than him. Being the most popular isn’t always a qualification to be leader, and that is why people have to put themselves forward as candidates first. If it’s ever a serious issue, Labour will vote on whether she gets to take over, like you would expect, although of course, they’ll tilt the odds in favour of their caucus’ vote for some bizzarre reason.
  4. If you’re giving your party vote or electorate vote to the Māori Party, you might want more information about what their plan is if they’re in a position to decide if Bill English stays Prime Minister or not. They’ve already said they can work with Labour, but would they prefer to? Nobody knows at this point, and the largely vacuous excuses for political journalists we have atm haven’t got the nuance yet that they need to ask a very specific question about this and see if the answer will change or not. (There are real political journalists out there who absolutely would understand this nuance, but they’re never given the job of interviewing or moderating party leaders for this sort of question in a format that significant numbers of NZers watch)
  5. Pushing for Raf Manji to win Ilam is only particularly relevant if National wins back the government again, and his vote becomes relevant for key legislation. (not that in principle I object to Gerry Brownlee being sent a message, or Christchurch having a bit more power in Parliament, those are good things, it’s just unlikely to move the electoral calculus in favour of changing the Government) It’s actually far more relevant to National whether O’Connor stands a chance of unseating Peter Dunne and whether Hone wins Te Tai Tokerau, as unlike the MP he is unlikely to support the National Party.
  6. As before, Preferred Prime Minister is a huge irrelevancy in polling and deserves to be replaced with favourable/unfavourable polling for the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, as the open-ended nature of the question prevents it from being useful as a gauge of whether the leader is an actual drag on either of the biggest two parties, and the lack of data as to whether it has any impact at all on the Party Vote means that experimenting with different metrics is a great idea, in case anyone who actually polls is listening.