Peter Dunne: It’s my party and I’ll agglomerate if I want to

by Guest Post

United Future leader Peter Dunne writes on the perils of a two-party system and why we must cheer on our minor party friends. Once more, this is not an endorsement (god imagine if it was, we’d be for National, the Greens and United Future. What a coalition that would be).

The debate about potential coalitions after the next election raises the more fundamental question of the role of political parties, especially in a multiparty environment.

In an age where people are not great joiners of anything anymore – be it political parties, sports clubs, service clubs or whatever – the contemporary role and purpose of political parties deserves more scrutiny than often given.

At its most basic level politics can be described as the mobilisation of bias. From the agglomeration of biases (or causes) political parties grow, and the key to political success is to mobilise support for the greatest number of related biases to gain the support of the majority, and win an election.

In the days of the old two-party system it was relatively straightforward – National and Labour became broad churches of a range of interests, often unrelated, but which co-existed uneasily because at fairly frequent intervals both the main parties had their turn in office to meet the concerns of their supporters. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, if you like.

But the advent of MMP changed all that in New Zealand. Because for the first time every vote actually counted, the agglomeration of the greatest number of biases possible to form a viable political party diminished. In turn, that meant that each bias could effectively seek representation in its own right, so a variety of parties was spawned out of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And that meant that the role of the major parties as recruiters of as wide a range of members as possible also changed, because it was no longer as important as before. So the incentive to join a major party to pursue a particular interest diminished.

At the same time, the advent of party lists made the parties more powerful in terms of the selection and subsequent election of Members of Parliament, so MPs became more subservient to the interests of the party bosses. So, on the one hand, while MMP removed the incentive for parties to be broadly based, on the other hand it gave considerably more control over MPs than ever before at a time when people were less inclined to join a political party.

It is little wonder therefore that both the major parties have found renewal and refreshment increasingly difficult. National has just drifted on – after looking potentially moribund in the English and Brash eras, it has relied heavily on the charisma of John Key to restore it to and now retain it in government. What happens after his time is hard to predict at this stage. Labour, because of more powerful traditional internal hierarchies, has become much more dominated by the party apparatus, as the recent leadership election process highlighted, which means it is producing MPs that are much more party clones than before. What impact this will have when Labour next experiences a period in government will be interesting to see.

The one saving grace in all this is the advent of viable minor parties. Freed of the yoke of being just a bias within a major party they have all been able to carve out a particular niche for themselves, some of course to a greater extent than others. No longer is their particular brand just one taste in a much larger mixture, and no longer are their particular supporters forced to endure a whole of often unpalatable flavours, in the hope that their strain will come to the fore from time to time. For them, the traditional role of political parties as the grouping of people of like mind (or bias) to advance that cause remains as important as ever, and needs to be nurtured, for our proportional representation system to work effectively.

So when it comes to putting together post-election coalitions, identifying in advance of the election the groupings most likely to be able to work together to form a coherent and viable government becomes vital to ensure the voter can make the best informed choice. That is how the mechanism we now derisively call the “cup of tea” developed. It was a relatively crude way of tipping a wink towards a favoured supporter. But, like all innovations, it has had its day. Voters are after a little more certainty than last minute stunts. The time has come for the major parties to spell out clearly before an election their preferred partners and then work with them to ensure they all get across the electoral line.

The worst outcome would be for a party to emerge as the largest single party in Parliament – the preferred choice of the largest group of voters – but to lack the partners to form a government.


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Mark Blackham October 31, 2013 - 9:28 am

I think Peter is saying that the political breakdown into small factions mirrors societal break down into not being ‘great joiners’.

But it isn’t mirroring the breakdown, it’s driving it.

Peter knows the community thinning better than most politicians because he spends a lot of time with community groups. Yes, overall people seem to contribute less to their community, but whose fault has that been? Individuals are relying on ever expanding bureaucratic structures and funding, rather than self-help; and Government policies teach us to calculate the cost of neighbours.

All is not lost though because the only thing that people are REALLY not joining is political parties.

People are still joining plenty of other stuff – stuff that matters to them in their community and to their personal interests.

Low membership of political parties is a symptom of lots of things but a primary thread through them is the professionalisation of political bias. Political parties are choosing to represent bias because it offers a safe path, and for their MPs, a safe career. They’re also choosing it because there no other great civic project, or pressing need apparent to them.

Peter rightly points out that the challenge to relevancy for political parties is between amorphous smile-and-wave broad representation, and tightly defined representation of a particular way of thinking.

Parties representing just ‘bias’ have a narrow ledge of purpose. It might make a voter feel temporarily good to vote for a Party that reflects the bias they shout at the TV in the privacy of their home, but they won’t join that Party because, god-dammit, the single-minded idiots there annoy the hell out them.

Gwynn October 31, 2013 - 10:53 am

You may want to revisit your idea that people no longer join things. While they’re not signing up to political parties, RSAs, sports clubs and the like in numbers you’re used to, they’re instead signing up to online communities that share their interests and ideas in numbers that far outstrip anything we’ve seen in the past.

These communities, which are seldom dominated by the rigid rules and constitutions of more formal institutions, allow them to share content and ideas across a far greater reach than they ever have before.

Sure, a large number of these communities are people sharing humourous cat photos, but there are also vast communities sharing scientific ideas, debating social issues and trying to find solutions to environmental issues.

That doesn’t make us a generation of disinterested individuals, just that we’re engaging with likeminded people in a new and different way to what was practiced decades ago.


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