Paul's Internet Landfill/ lj/ MMP 102: Party Life Cycles

MMP 102: Party Life Cycles

In our last episode, I argued that medium and small parties are electable, and therefore these smaller parties can effectively compete against the big-tent parties for votes and seats. In this entry, I want to explore just how effectively the smaller parties can compete.

My original hope was that MMP would support a "party life cycle". As they gain trust and experience, little parties could grow into bigger and more powerful ones, and challenge the big-tent parties for dominance. In response, the big parties would have to fight hard to maintain their status, which might reduce big-party arrogance and stagnation. Given Ontario's proposed system, are these hopes realistic?

Unfortunately, I don't think so. Small parties can gain seats and grow to some extent, but the chances of small parties actively challenging the big-tent parties for dominance appears slim.

The evidence from New Zealand and Germany (courtesy of Wikipedia) offer the first clue. In New Zealand the two big-tent parties (National on the right, Labour on the left) have remained dominant. It's the same story in Germany: in every election, the two big-tent parties (CDU/CSU on the right, SPD on the left) have been the top two parties since MMP was introduced in 1949.

Certain properties of Ontario's proposal strengthen my belief that the Liberals and Conservatives are not going anywhere soon. The first has to do with small party incentives. In Ontario parties need to win ridings in order to challenge for dominance, since only 30% of the MPPs will come from lists. In order to win ridings parties need a lot of concentrated local support. I suspect this will happen to some degree, because list MPPs will likely contend for local seats, reducing the incumbent advantage riding members usually enjoy in FPTP. This is more likely to benefit big parties (which win list seats too, after all) than the smaller parties. A list MPP from a big party will have two weapons in his or her attempt to overthrow the incumbent: the familiarity gained by being a list MPP, and the media saturation that the big-tent parties enjoy. List MPPs from smaller parties will only have one of those weapons in their arsenals, and thus will have a harder time dethroning the incumbent. Furthermore (as I will mention in a later post) incumbents get incumbent advantage as well.

Another factor: ridings are not that important in MMP because the overall number of ridings a party wins is mostly determined by the party vote. In fact, every riding a small party wins is a list seat that party loses. A big question mark here is how much prestige voters will assign to riding seats; if voters trust parties that win more ridings to those that win fewer, then small parties might compete for local ridings more actively. Otherwise, they could well focus on raising their share of the party vote. This can help them do better in competition with other medium and small parties, but it won't help in challenging a big party for dominance.

The NDP is an interesting wildcard in all of this. Will they continue to aspire to big party status and seriously compete in most ridings, or will they give up on ridings and focus on the party vote (perhaps running token candidates in ridings)? If the NDP stops taking ridings seriously, it seems plausible that other smaller parties will follow suit.

I don't see the NDP as being a serious contender for big party status unless another big party implodes. In order to become a big party, the NDP would have to shift to the centre, which would imply that some catastrophe hit either the Conservatives or Liberals. What seems more likely to me is that a niche opens up the middle of the Liberals and Conservatives. Middle parties in this niche could play both ends against the middle, and sit in either Conservative or Liberal governments. This happens in Germany with the FDP, and in New Zealand with a number of parties including United and New Zealand First. These middle parties seem more-or-less content with their niches; it does not appear that they seriously contend for big-party status either.

In short, I think the Liberals and Conservatives are safe for the forseeable future. Under MMP, other parties could cause them headaches by stealing their votes and demanding lots of coalition concessions, but I don't see anybody toppling their thrones.

Even if the party labels don't change, I have some hope that the influence of smaller parties might shift the policies behind the label. To some degree, we see evidence of this already. Federally, the big parties have jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon -- partially because Al Gore made a movie, and partially in response to Elizabeth May taking over the Green Party leadership. Since big parties are not required to be in diametric opposition to their smaller competitors, they can poach good ideas from their "little buddies", which can change their policy platforms without name changes.


You know where election results come from: Wikipedia makes them up.

Livejournal URL:

Mood: unhappy