“Coat-tailing” and other political oddities
What is the deal with “coat-tailing” and all those other little idiosyncrasies of our nation’s MMP system we hear bandied around in the news? Before we can get down to the details, we’ll need a quick rundown on the two ways to get one of the 120 seats in New Zealand’s Parliament and be an MP in the first place.
First, you can compete as an individual in one of the 71 electorates – get the most ticks next to your name from people who live in that particular electorate, and you have a seat in Parliament to represent them for the next three years. Good luck.
Second, you can compete for the party vote. This one is arguably a harder way to get into Parliament, as you’ve got to get a bunch of people together who agree on various policies and ideas, promote yourselves as a party, and then hope that at least 5% of the New Zealand voting public are on board. If your party gains 5% or more of the party vote, you will get roughly the same percentage of the seats in Parliament.
This whole “5% of all voters threshold” thing can be a pretty tough nut to crack for a party that’s just starting out – in the 2011 election it meant that you had to get more than 112,000 New Zealanders to vote for you.
Understandably, many parties focus on winning an electorate, as each one has only around 60,000 eligible voters, so the number you have to convince to vote for you to win is far less, usually between 12,000-18,000.
The thing that makes getting an electorate seat even more attractive in our system is if someone in your party wins an electorate seat, the doors of Parliament are opened to the rest of your party, and you get to bring in extra members according to the percentage of the party vote you won.
For example, in 2008, the ACT Party only got 3.65% of the party vote, but their leader Rodney Hide won the electorate of Epsom, which meant that 4 other ACT MPs were able to ride into Parliament on his “coat-tails.”
This electoral shortcut has allowed large parties from both sides of the political spectrum to help minor parties—ones that will help them to form a government—to get into Parliament by gifting an electorate seat. They do this by directing their supporters in that electorate to vote for the smaller party’s candidate, whilst still giving the larger party their party vote.
Understandably this can seem unfair, and leads to accusations of parties “gaming” the system. I have sympathy for this view, but I also believe that as long as there is a system, people will figure out how to make it work to their advantage. It’s up to New Zealand voters to get clued up on what our political operators are up to, and vote with clear eyes for the ones whose actions we agree with the most.