According to the NZ Herald, Helen Clark, leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of New Zealand, intends to “freshen” the party ranks by shaking up the party list. Her goal is to advance some of the party’s “very good people waiting in the wings.”
Clark is proposing to reduce the use of “dual inclusion,” by which I mean the simultaneous nomination of candidates in both a single-seat district and on the (national) party list. If this happens, it may undermine some of the key advantages of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, as I elaborate below.
Typically, the top positions on the party list are filled by the candidates who also have been nominated in their own individual districts. In this way, the party can be certain that these candidates make it to parliament even if they lose their individual race. As the Herald notes, Clark’s comments to the effect that some district candidates may not be assured of a place on the party list “may be seen by some MPs as a hint they risk being given low slots on the list if they stand again.”
There are good and able people coming through who have been in the lower ranks of the list, and would be quite legitimate in pursuing their aspirations for a higher slot.
One example is Phil Twyford, a former journalist and union organizer, who lost his district race to a National candidate and failed to secure a seat off the list because his 55th rank was too low.
The Herald then lists nine current MPs who ran and lost district races but won on account of a sufficiently high list position, including two current cabinet ministers (David Parker and Rick Barker).
The Herald refers to these legislators as “Backdoor MPs.” That is unfortunate, as it perpetuates the myth that these legislators are inherently less worthy than those who won a plurality of the vote in a constituency (“electorate” in NZ terminology) in which they were nominated. The term, “Backdoor MPs” is perhaps not as bad as the term, Zombies, used in Japan, but it is just as inappropriate. Mixed-member systems have two ways to win: By winning a plurality of the vote in a geographically contained district, or from a party list. (The party list need not be national, although it is in New Zealand.)
In fact, far from being inferior for allowing a candidate who loses a district race to win a seat via the list, a mixed-member system really needs to have such legislators in order to live up to its “best of both worlds” potential. The only way one could prevent these alleged ‘backdoor MPs’ from being present in the legislature is to prohibit the dual inclusion of candidates. Only with such a prohibition can losers be losers, i.e. only then can those who do not win a plurality in their district be kept out of parliament altogether.
To diehard defenders of FPTP, that is as it should be. But probe a bit deeper. One of the major flaws of pure FPTP systems (aside from the obvious one: their tendency to distort party support due to their disproportionality) is that the claimed advantage of local representation may not apply to locals who voted for a losing party. Yet under MMP many districts have candidates who ran locally, but did not get the plurality, nonetheless represented in parliament via the party list. When losers of the district race have a possibility of winning a seat anyway, then thay have an incentive to pay attention to the district. In other words, with a local “loser” still representing the district, more of the district’s voters have “won.”
If, on the other hand, the possibility of dual winners is banned (because we don’t want MPs to enter via that horrible “back door”) then we have created two classes of MPs–not the mythical “backdoor” MPs who sit alongside the “frontdoor” MPs who managed to win district pluralities. Rather we have one set of MPs who competed in districts and won the plurality in their race and a separate set of MPs who ran only on the list. The latter, of course, have no need to pay attention to local considerations; they can be pure list specialists.
Therefore, we should want to encourage parties in mixed-member systems to run their candidates in both tiers and discourage the media from using derogatory terms like “backdoor MPs” that have no basis in the actual working of the system.
Helen Clark’s plans, if implemented, would tend to centralize authority in the party leader’s hands by creating a class of MPs dependent primarily upon the leader and with little incentive to connect to local interests. It may be in Clark’s short term interests to do so, but will her party recognize that it is not in the party’s longer-term interests to reduce its members’ incentives to recognize local interests even in districts it loses?
Related discussion: MMP and dual candidacy