The day after the 2005 election a journalist rang to ask me why the provinces went blue.
The question was a response to the gains by National of seats like Invercargill, Aoraki, East Coast, Napier, Tukituki, Tauranga, Wairarapa, and Whanganui which blue washed provincial New Zealand, leaving just West Coast Tasman, Dunedin, most Christchurch seats, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington and most Auckland seats red.
He wondered if it was socially liberal legislation such as legalising prostitution and civil unions. I replied that I didn’t think these’d had a significantly greater impact in the provinces than they’d had in cities.
The change was more a reflection on the calibre of National’s candidates and the commitment they’d made to winning combined with disenchantment with Labour MPs who’d not been effective in their electorates.
But it was also a growing concern over the negative impact of Labour’s policy and in this the provinces led the country because this time, as a map from Wikipedia shows the country is even even bluer – National gained West Coast Tasman , Otaki and New Plymouth, leaving Palmerston North as the only general seat outside Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin held by Labour and they now hold only two of the Maori seats too.
It wasn’t just the provinces which went blue. National also picked up Auckland Central , Maungakiekie and Waitakere as well as the new seat of Botany.
This is great for National and I also think it’s great for New Zealand.
But is it good for democracy?
Electorate MPs face the people who put them in parliament, they work for them as individuals, they see the impact of government policies on them and if they’re effective, they feed that back to Wellington.
It’s the party vote that counts in the make-up of parliament and government. But electorate MPs play a very big role in attracting the party vote.
Good local MPs contribute a great deal to the image of their party, they are a walking talking advertisement for it and its most accessible representative. They build up personal support that can transcend party affiliation – people who can’t bring themselves to vote for a party will give a popular MP their candidate vote. This increases their majority when their party is in favour and may help them retain their seats when the tide turns against their party.
Electorate MPs also play another important role in a democratic country, they also help motivate and encourage volunteers.
Parties on the left often complain that it’s easier for National because our supporters are wealthier and so we have more money. That’s not necessarily so, we have members across the income spectrum and you only have to go back to 2002 to see that Labour can get more money than National.
National’s real strength is not the incomes of our supporters, it’s the number and commitment of its grassroots members and ironically the Electoral Finance Act constrained spending so tightly, it gave national an advantage because campaigns depended on volunteers more than ever.
And that’s why I ask if the bluewash is good for democracy, because one of the things it shows is that other parties don’t have good grassroots support throughout New Zealand.
That’s a concern for them but it’s also a concern for the country because political parties have a great deal of power under MMP and if they don’t have strong memberships that power is based on an unstable foundation of ideology rather than the stable one of broad based and committed supporters.
Hat tip: Kiwiblog.