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Posts tagged ‘Labour Party’

On the Labour leadership election

Critics of Labour’s electoral college system should be careful with their logic.

There’s been a lot of commentary about how perverse it is that Andrew Little won the Labour leadership pretty much because of support in the unions. I sympathise, but if that’s why it’s a problem that Mr Little won, it’s worth asking exactly what you want from the voting system.

Here’s the thing: Whenever you grant any person, group or other actor any right to vote, you must accept that there is at least some circumstance in which they can single-handedly change the outcome. If there isn’t, then there’s literally zero—not just negligible—chance of impact from the vote, so why would you bother with it?

So when Labour’s electoral college gives the unions any weight greater than zero, it must expect that a situation like today’s, where a candidate lost the caucus and membership but still won the leadership, is possible. Conversely, if it bothers you that Mr Little basically rode in on union support, then you have to advocate that the unions should have no say in the Labour leadership at all.

Now, to be honest, this is pretty much my position, and I’m sure commentators outraged at how the result was achieved would agree. But this requires more than just the observation that the unions don’t agree with caucus or the membership. The fact that there’s a split in opinion there doesn’t imply that the unions are wrong.

The question of whether the unions should have a say can be answered only by asking what the Labour Party is supposed to be about. The Labour Party has its roots in the trade unions, so it’s not outrageous to suggest that they have a stake in the leadership. History isn’t alone good reason, though. The Labour Party is supposed to be a government-in-waiting (or ideally, a government), and there’s a strong argument that any formalised union influence detracts from that role.

This all also means that the fact that Mr Little had 76% union support in the final round isn’t part of the argument. If you want to give unions weight, then presumably you’d accept that the stronger one’s support there, the bigger the potential impact it should have on the final outcome. (I suppose you could have a winner-takes-all scheme like America’s Electoral College, but I hope you’ll agree that’s much worse.) People keep pointing to the numbers as if the extent of the union victory has some particular impact on the result’s legitimacy. Yet I bet if the caucus, members and unions were all close, and it was ultimately the unions that got Mr Little over the line, these critics would still all be saying the same thing

The only qualitative argument I can think of is that Mr Little’s support came about because of his former role as a union boss, so the unions were installing “one of their own”. Perhaps it would be better if Labour’s electors tried to be more objective, but presumably the unions were backing Mr Little because they actually thought he’d do a good job. How is the fact that that belief came from prior experience any different to any other support based on prior work someone’s done with a candidate?

The problem isn’t that the numbers fell a certain way. It’s that Labour instituted a leadership system that obsesses so much with itself that it insists accountability to a weird numerical mash-up of three distinct, and often clashing, parts. If we want to leave one part out of it, then use substantive arguments about why the unions shouldn’t matter, not just an observation that they can, and do, sway the result.

The minimum swing needed in the special votes for the Greens to steal that seat

A 4.6-point swing in specials relative to preliminary, about 0.6 points more than my projection, would get the Greens a 14th seat at National’s expense. But even less might be sufficient.

I think a projection, which I posted yesterday, is more useful information that the “minimum required swing” calculations that I did for the 2011 election. But if anyone is interested in knowing exactly what the Greens need to clear the bar, here is that spreadsheet I did in 2011, updated with 2014 data: Required changes in special votes to steal seats, 2014 election.

I won’t go through all the various possibilities. If you’re curious, feel free to do that yourself using the spreadsheet. The situation that is most interesting, because (other than no change) it’s most likely, is where the Greens would pick up a 14th seat in exchange for National’s 61st (and absolute majority).

The Greens would need to swing +4.60 points in the special votes alone (not total votes), relative to the preliminary count, to take a seat. I have them projected to swing +4.05 points, so this isn’t unrealistic.

Here’s the catch: In the preliminary results, Labour has the 120th quotient and National the 119th. This means that Labour would lose a seat before National. So they need to gain a little to make sure it’s National, not them, who loses the seat. This isn’t hard: they’re 561 votes away (relative to an assumption that specials are distributed identically to preliminary), or +0.19 points. My projection has them well ahead of this.

So the “minimum change required” situation has both Labour and the Greens taking from National. You’ll notice in the table below that the Greens don’t actually need National to lose as much as it did in my projection: -4.79 points, not as much as my projected loss of -5.58 points.

In terms of absolute votes, this is a swing of 1,648 relative to my projection. I said in my last post that 1,129 votes more would suffice. The assumptions behind these figures are different. The projection margin (1,129) assumes that the Greens only gain votes, and no-one loses any, i.e. it’s likely to be an overestimate (not by double though—the equivalent National loss is 5,058). The “minimum required” swing (1,648 relative to projection) assumes that all other parties perform in the specials identically to the preliminary result. Historically (and hence in my projection) most left-wing parties do better in the specials at National’s expense, and these help the Greens too. So this is also likely to be an overestimate, probably more so.

So really, the most important hope for the Greens to hang on to is that they will perform about 0.6 points, or maybe (depending on what else happens) even just 0.35 points, better in the special votes than the 2011 swings might imply.* As I said in my last post, it’s certainly possible, but it’ll be very close. If I were Steffan Browning or Maureen Pugh, I’d have a very nervous two weeks ahead.

Party Preliminary Projection Special required Change on prelim Change on projection Total required Change on prelim
National 48.06% 42.48% < 43.26% -4.79% +0.79% < 47.47% -0.59%
Labour 24.69% 28.10% > 24.88% +0.19% -3.22% > 24.71% +0.02%
Green 10.02% 14.07% > 14.63% +4.60% +0.56% > 10.59% +0.57%

* My projection applies the 2011 preliminary-to-special swings multiplicatively, not additively, to the 2014 preliminary result. A full method description is in the post describing the projection.

A statistical look at a 50% quota

Even if you support the ideology, you would have to believe in some crazy statistical assumptions to back a 50% gender quota (or target).

This is not a post about the merits of affirmative action in principle. People argue that plenty; I’ve little to add. It’s in basic statistics that Labour’s proposal to target “at least 50%” female representation loses any sense very quickly.

To see why, let’s start with a few basic assumptions. Some over-simplify things a bit, but they’re all charitable to quotas in principle.

  1. Someone’s competence and their gender are independent events.
    By this I mean that if you’re told someone’s gender, you learn nothing about their competence, even in statistical generalities.* Conversely, if I told you that someone was “great”, “useless” or “above average”, you’d have no better chance of guessing their gender than a coin.
  2. People are not all equally competent.
    This should be pretty uncontroversial. Note that this is a comment on individuals, not groups.
  3. The statistical distributions of competency are the same for men and women.
    This follows directly from (1). Note that this doesn’t just say on average. It’s the entire distribution, so it applies among the highest and lowest echelons of a(n infinitely large) population too. To be more precise, we say that the competences of men and women are independent and identically distributed.
  4. Exactly 50% of the population is female, and exactly 50% is male.
    This isn’t strictly true (females slightly outnumber males and we ignore transsexuals) but normally in these discussions we assume that it’s close enough.

Assume also (for the sake of demonstration) that our objective is always to choose the most competent people. Our motivation for instituting a quota, of course, is that we think there are other barriers to our achieving our competence-based objective.

From my list of four assumptions above, the following statement does logically follow:

  • If every year (or election), you choose the best N people for something, the long-run average of the proportion of everyone chosen that are male and female will both tend toward 50%.

But in order to support a 50% quota, or even just a target, for every single election cycle, you would also have to believe this statement:

  • If every year (or election), you choose the best N people for something, then the proportion of men and women in each group will be 50%, allowing for rounding.

Picking it apart
How true would this be? Remember our first assumption: gender and competence are independent. This means that if you choose the best N people, as far as gender is concerned that is as good as picking N people at random.

So let’s start with a simple case, N = 2. You might remember doing this at school, except with parents having two children. There are four combinations: two men, two women, a man then a woman, and a woman then a man (the order matters). That gives a 2/4, or 50% chance, of there being exactly 50%.

As you increase N, the likelihood of the split being exactly 50% decreases. For four people it’s 6/16 or 37.5%; for ten it’s 24.6%; for 34 (the size of Labour’s caucus), it’s 13.6%.

This might seem counter-intuitive, given that I also just said that the long-run average would tend towards 50%. Surely this means that as N gets bigger and bigger, the probability of it hitting 50% must be higher? Well, yes and no. The probability of it being exactly 500,000 out of a million, not 499,999 or 500,001, is tiny (0.08%). But the probability distribution of gender split also narrows, so it’s more likely to be close to 50%. So while the odds of being between 4/10 and 6/10 are just 65.6%, the odds of being between 4,000 and 6,000 out of 10,000 are 100%, rounded to 90 significant figures.


A flawed policy
What does this mean in the context of quotas? Well, it means that if you think that in the absence of barriers we would see 50% of caucus being female every year, you’re statistically incorrect. We would actually expect it to vary from year to year. With a group of 30 to 40, it would vary quite a bit, both over and under, but would average out to 50% in the long run.

Obviously this hasn’t been the case to date. Men are over-represented in every legislature, including ours, and have been as long as anyone can remember. So on the statistics, if we accept all of the above assumptions, then it’s fair to say there are undue barriers preventing women from being nominated.

But to yearn for an even split every election year, you would have to reject at least one assumption. You might believe that all individuals are identically competent. You might believe that if I told you the best person was female, then it’s a good guess that the second-best is male, i.e. that competence and gender are not independent. I would be surprised if anyone did believe either of those, but I’m not objecting to it here. Proponents may also have values other than strict competence at heart (e.g. diversity), which is fine too.

It’s just that those aren’t typically the arguments that get raised when we talk about 50% gender quotas. The cause of gender equality is worthy: no-one, left or right, seriously contests it; they just differ over how to achieve it. But a single caucus—a single sample of 30 to 50 people—is not a reliable metric of whether we’re there.

* The reason I say this expressly is that I don’t just mean it in the “statistics don’t apply to the individual” sense. I mean it statistically, as in it doesn’t even tell you about the odds.
† I originally tried to get a figure for one million, but the probability of it not being between 400,000 and 600,000 is too small for a computer to express with a 64-bit double-precision floating point number.

If there was no threshold

If the five per cent threshold didn’t apply, the Conservative Party and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party would have polled high enough to gain seats:

% Party





National Party
Labour Party
Green Party
NZ First Party
Conservative Party
Maori Party

ACT New Zealand
United Future
Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party
Other parties

* The Maori Party got 2 seats but won 3 electorates, so they keep their third electorate as an overhang seat
† There are actually 70 electorates, but Christchurch Central is currently tied before special votes, so for this count we’re just pretending it doesn’t exist.  It’s tied between National and Labour, so it doesn’t actually affect the total number of seats.

Under the Sainte-Laguë method with the threshold, National had the 117th, 118th and 120th seats, and Labour had the 119th seat.  Those last four seats would be lost.  The Conservatives, at 2.76%—higher than the Maori and ACT Parties combined—polled high enough to get the 18th seat in the allocations, as well as the 56th and 91st.  The ALCP had a close shave polling at 0.48% and picking up seat number 104 with 1,185 votes to spare (above the new 120th quotient, 8,331).‡

List candidates who would have made it List candidates who wouldn’t have made it
Colin Craig (Conservatives)—18th seat
Kathy Sheldrake (Conservatives)—56th seat
Larry Baldock (Conservatives)—91st seat
Michael Appleby (ALCP)—104th seat
Aaron Gilmore (National)—120th seat
Raymond Huo or Rajen Prasad (Labour)§—119th seat
Cam Calder (National)—118th seat
Jackie Blue (National)—117th seat

‡ In a 120-seat Parliament with no threshold, you generally need roughly 0.42% to get one seat.  The way I think of it is that you need more than half of 1/120th of the total votes, which works out to 0.42%.
§ If Brendon Burns wins Christchurch Central, he displaces Mr Huo out of Parliament and Mr Prasad into the last list position, so it would be Mr Prasad.  If Mr Burns loses, it would be Mr Huo.

This would obviously have seen the National-ACT-United Future combination fall short of a majority at 59 seats.  But there’s a solid chance that National would have considered the Conservatives a suitable coalition partner.  (They don’t agree on everything, but then, no two parties do.)  That would then have seen the right-wing group on 62 seats, still enough to govern.

Of course, even if the Conservatives were excluded here, the Maori Party’s three seats would also have been enough to give National a majority.  But that would have made life a lot harder for National’s legislative programme (as ACT and the Maori Party don’t always vote together).

Labour would have had a much, much harder time stitching up a majority, given that they would need NZ First (who said they won’t work with anyone), Mana (who Labour said they won’t touch) and ALCP (who knows?), and even with all of them (plus the Greens and Maori Party) they’d still fall one seat short.

So, no change in government and no radical change in its form, unless you count the entry of the Conservatives into a centre-right government as a big change.  (That said, at 2.76% they probably deserve those three seats.)

As for the ALCP getting into Parliament, it might scare a few people but the ALCP’s done okay before: in 1996, they got 1.66% of the party vote.  Nonetheless, 0.48% can seem like a short mandate to get 1/121st of the seats in Parliament.  If we used the modified Sainte-Laguë method, where the first divisor is changed from 1 to 1.4 but all subsequent divisors are the same (3, 5, 7, …) (as is used in Norway and Sweden) then that seat would have gone to National instead.

I used to do this exercise for fun (well, once, in 2008). It matters a bit more to me now because I’ve come to support abolishing the threshold altogether.  It matters even more with the review of MMP that will be coming up if MMP (as predicted) wins the referendum.  The change to this election result would have been relatively insignificant and I don’t like either of the parties that didn’t make it, but it makes little sense to me that a party receiving four times the vote of a party that gets one seat, should get no representation in Parliament at all.

What not to decide votes on

It’s not easy to be an undecided voter in this election.  Once in a while there’s a nudge either way, but it’s difficult to find anything compelling.  People who are convinced towards Labour or National typically base their convictions on startling misconceptions of both major parties, or on gross assumptions about the contest in general.  You can’t blame us for having such comments bounce off us.

A good cliché, for example, is the call for “change”.  What change?  National’s policies present little in terms of “change”; they are essentially Labour’s tinkered around the edges.  Unlike the 1980s, this Labour government has done nothing radical or disastrous in the last nine years.  A National government would have no pieces to pick up, and would find hard to ditch the better of Labour’s initiatives.  Change for the sake of change must not be what decides votes: an extension of this mentality would see constant changes in government, which can stifle progress as new governments take time to settle into office.

A word that floats around similarly is “trust”.  National, some would have us believe, can be expected to abandon everything they’ve said as soon as they take office.  The tendency for core National supporters not to have realised the shift in their party’s stances notwithstanding, such accusations seem to be little but rhetoric.  Differences from the Brash era are to be expected, perhaps even welcomed.  With the election in just over a month, National’s policy releases have accelerated significantly and are making some sense.

There are other misinformed grounds.  The “anti-smacking bill” seems still fresh on some minds, the better of people having forgotten that National voted for it at its final reading.  National’s turnaround on student loans seemed more of a reluctance to revisit done decisions than an indecisive flip-flop.  Undecided voters aren’t about to cry over pre-2005 social policies when we’ve got the economy to worry about.  And what’s this about governments telling us how to live our lives?  I certainly can’t feel it.

When I mention these thoughts to convinced voters, I mostly get reluctant agreement.  Yeah, maybe there wouldn’t be much change, and yeah, maybe change isn’t always the magic word… but it doesn’t matter, I’m still voting for change.  Yeah, maybe I should examine their policies… but it doesn’t matter, I still don’t trust him.  I’m sure those who can properly reason their decision know who they are, but by and large, many just haven’t caught onto the fact that we’re deciding between different two cultivars of apple.

Perhaps, as the election campaign progresses, things will become slightly clearer.  But it’d be silly for non-traditional or non-partisan voters to have decided by now.  Both parties have moderate track records, and both will be releasing exciting plans for the future (or so we hope), and that’s what swing voters should be looking at closely whey they make up their minds.

Election bribery to be expected

It is the classic left-right divide.  The left, by definition, favours more government services; the right, lower taxes.  Any individual with common sense knows that, in general, there is an inverse relationship between the two.  Finance Minister Dr Michael Cullen’s recent tax cut announcements will inevitably, then, be subject to sceptism and—if NZ Herald reader views are anything to go by—will probably be assumed to be nothing more than an election year bribe.

The jump to the conclusion, though, is astounding.  Many seem to “know” that National is bound to deliver tax cuts and Labour will most certainly not.  With both parties driving toward the centre, though, it is difficult to apply the left-right stereotype.  Conditions may have changed in the past three or six years, so that cuts are warranted now when they weren’t then.  The tight fiscal policy effectively required by the Public Finance Act may have achieved its purpose, or alternative funding options may be more appropriate for Labour’s next projects.  National has yet to announce anything substantial about its tax cuts policy, other than “we’ll do it”, but a similar restraint from assumption must be exercised.

Cullen’s recent announcement must have been broadly predictable.  It would have been political suicide not to at least hint at tax cuts.  In the same way, it will be political suicide if National overdoes theirs, cutting government services as a result.  Both parties will have to persuade centrist voters that they have the right balance in mind.

To be fair, Labour’s “four tests” for tax cuts do seem a tall ask.  Individually, they might not seem unreasonable, except perhaps to the strongly right-aligned: a refusal to borrow, to cut services, to increase inflation or to reduce social equality.  Combined, though, they form an insurmountable barrier.  National’s suspicion that they will serve as “excuses to deny tax cuts” seems fair.

Although fiscal operating surpluses might make the services criterion an easy task, high consumption spending and the consequential high inflation and interest rates make the inflation test alone an almost certain escape route.  Reserve Bank Governor Dr Alan Bollard has already hinted that tax cuts are likely to keep interest rates high.  Whereas Labour has effectively said it just won’t do it, National will have to show how its cuts won’t make inflation worse than it already is.

The promise of tax cuts at this time is basic politics.  The reality is that citizens are greedy, and many simply don’t understand the link between taxes, government services and inflation, let alone the inflationary effect of their consumption spending habits.  These are the people both parties are trying to attract, so Labour has jumped the gun on National in order to nullify the advantage National has often had of being first to make the big speech.  Election bribery, people say.  Labour’s promise (including the excuses) might or might not be genuine—but what else did you expect?

Related Links

Anti-EFA brigade overreacting to warning to website

Resistance to the Electoral Finance Act (EFA) is not without reason—posts in this blog have been critical of it—but opponents must now realise the line between reacting and overreacting.  The Electoral Commission’s warning to webmaster Andrew Moore did not concern the EFA’s most controversial clause.  On the contrary, it concerned quite possibly the only reasonable requirement of the new law.

The website has a self-explanatory title “Don’t Vote Labour” and breaches the Act by not having the name and address of the publisher on it.  It is a requirement that has always been, one that has existed for years for billboards and print adverts without public complaint, before the internet became widespread.  Times have changed, and the law has to keep up by demanding the same standards of what is now an equally influential medium.

The point here is not about the name-and-address requirement, but that in their desperation to find something to criticise, the anti-EFA activists are promoting a double standard.  They must apply the same rules to campaign websites as billboards, print and broadcasting: either they all should require a name and address, or none of them should.  If the latter applies, why weren’t they campaigning to repeal that requirement before?

EFA opponents must conduct themselves with a sense of rationality if they are to succeed.  They need to argue with the facts, rather than with random statements.  Whaleoil’s claims that t-shirts and bumper stickers will breach the law and that webmasters have to “register” are symptomatic.  Even Helen Clark would admit that t-shirts and bumper stickers don’t “encourage or persuade voters”, as in the EFA’s definition of election advertisement.  And webmasters don’t have to register unless they spend more than $12,000, they only have to print their name and address on the website.  By publishing such hopelessly misleading statements, EFA opponents risk falling from the moral high ground, just like the Labour Party did after the 2005 election.

The law is right to excuse personal political expression in blogs, for the simple reason that the common citizen should not need to worry about regulation.  The Don’t Vote Labour, though, is not just political expression, it is a full-on campaign.  Like donators, campaign leaders should not fear identification if they truly believe in what they are doing.

The warning to the Don’t Vote Labour website is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than seize on the small stuff, EFA opponents are far better off waiting for more meaty cases.  Cases of ordinary citizens, not deliberately trying to flout the law, but getting caught up in a maze of regulation nonetheless.  It’ll happen.  The EFA is a mess and will turn out messy cases—but it has yet to do so.

Related Links
Earlier related posts (in my other blog)