Liam Hehir writes about the fate of third parties and Gareth Morgan’s TOP.
The Opportunities Party (or TOP) hit a milestone last week when it was registered as an official political party with the Electoral Commission.
With more than 2000 members, party founder Gareth Morgan has reason to be pleased. Those membership numbers almost certainly exceed those of a number of parties holding seats in Parliament.
Nevertheless, unless something dramatic happens, there is almost no chance that TOP candidates will become MPs following the general election. Last month’s Mount Albert by-election, which TOP contested, underlines just how difficult it is for new parties to elbow their way to a seat at the table.
I want to see TOP get 4% and fail. That way the vote get reallocated and almost half will go to National.
On paper, Mount Albert should have been a promising contest for TOP. First, National didn’t participate, meaning a lot of Centre-Right votes were up for grabs.
Second, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and the Greens’ Julie Ann Genter conspicuously campaigned as “best friends forever” rather than rivals for a vacancy, meaning TOP could distinguish itself as the only alternative.
Third, the electorate is one of the younger and better educated constituencies in the country, which corresponds to the demographic TOP seems to be targeting. Fourth, smaller parties usually do better in by-elections than general elections. Finally, TOP benefited from free advertising in the form of media coverage that new political parties don’t normally get.
And yet, despite the tailwinds, the TOP candidate secured a paltry 623 votes. The fact is that no political party has won representation without the assistance of a sitting MP since 1996, when ACT won 6.1 per cent of the vote. However, that party was led by well-known and experienced politicians who knew what they were doing.
It was worse than that. The TOP candidate got 4.59% of a 30% turnout. All evidence suggests that they will fail at the general election and fail spectacularly.
Why do small parties struggle to make it under their own steam? Before MMP, blame tended to be lain at the feet of first-past-the-post voting.
With that excuse gone, we hear a bit about the unfairness of the 5 per cent threshold. But if the threshold was a full per cent lower, the only additional parties that would have crossed it would have been the Christian Coalition in 1996 and New Zealand First in 2008 – both of whom were led by then sitting MPs.
Money is sometimes blamed. The argument is that wealthy interests have a stake in the status quo and so shower their largesse on establishment parties.
However, the idea that votes can be bought through lavish funding has been disproven well and truly. If election success comes down to advertising budgets, then the Conservatives and Internet-Mana should be in Parliament today, the Greens should have about as many seats as Labour and ACT should have more MPs than New Zealand First.
The only real big money in elections is from the unions supporting Labour. That hasn’t exactly been successful either, failing to deliver for 9 years. Act is the best case study, along with Hillary Clinton that money can’t buy you elections.
In fact, there are two very good reasons why small parties fail to make the cut. The first is a simple lack of know-how. Over time, successful political movements build up a repository of institutional knowledge about the business of elections and the work required to win them. Most of this work comes down to mundane tasks and systems and so generally falls outside the gaze of the media.
Sometimes, this can be alleviated with good advisors. However, you have to find the right advisers, be prepared to pay them and – most importantly of all – to actually take their advice.
Good advisors cost money.
This is often difficult for people who have done well for themselves outside of politics and expect their success to effortlessly translate at the ballot box. Anyone who has volunteered in a few elections will be able to tell you what frustratingly bad campaigners self-made businessmen can be.
Mainly, because they like telling other people what to do, then enter a new industry like politics and think they know it all, when the evidence suggests they know eff all.
The other reason is that voting is a zero-sum proposition. If you cast your vote for one party, it means that you can’t vote for another one. Voters take their jobs seriously and realise that, when they go to the polls, they have one, global decision to make about the overall interests of the country.
So it’s not enough to think a new party has some interesting ideas or even to agree with a few of its policies. Unless its agenda is simple, realistic and offers something you can’t get from a party already in Parliament, the chances are you won’t wind up voting for it. That goes for double if the party has no clear path to actually winning seats in Parliament.
Those who want to make a difference are generally better off putting their time and money into an established party. Party memberships are so hollowed out these days that anyone with a modicum of talent has a good chance of amassing some influence over time.
It may involve boring meetings and not always getting your way but, if history is anything to go by, it’s the better bet by far.
The other problem is that small parties often attract single issue nutters. I know of at least two people who are big BCIR fans. They have moved from one small party to the next seeking someone who will implement BCIR. Happy hand-clapper Christians are another issues group that like to wreck small parties. One person I know has been in National, then the Christian Coalition, then the Conservative party. He was trouble in all of them. Small parties attract the loons. Having a party made up of loons and often led by loons makes them unattractive for voters.