Political skills and MPs


A core problem we have on the left, I think, is that very few of our MPs actually understand politics. Of course it depends on how you define the term – if you expand it to include policy and ideology and political history and hating neoliberalism then yes, sure, they know about that stuff. But on the actual core challenge of influencing the public to achieve power they are mostly demonstrably clueless. Worse, they’re blind to their cluelessness. ‘Bad at politics?’ They would snort. ‘Aren’t they MPs? Haven’t they risen to that height through their own political genius? Doesn’t that, by definition, make them awesome at politics?’

Many MPs can spend a couple of decades in Parliament but have pretty weak political skills and understanding. There’s a certain amount you can learn, but there is also natural ability.

Are New Zealand First backbenchers ‘awesome at politics’? They are not. The leader of their party is and he needs people to fill out the rest of his caucus and his backbenchers are really just a bunch of nobodies who’ve lucked into that slot. And an awful lot of Labour and Green MPs have done pretty much the same thing. They’ve used parties founded by or led by people with political acumen as vehicles for entry into Parliament, stayed there, some of them for decades, while evidently learning nothing. How many left-wing MPs have won a seat off National recently? How many have taken down a Minister? Won cross-party support for a bill? How many have even increased the party vote in their own electorate?

Good questions.

Very few. National expects success from their MPs. If they don’t perform they ditch them.

Not always, but National has been more ruthless. Challenges to sitting electorate MPs are quite common. We had two at the last election. A number of incumbent MPs have been told they won’t get a high list ranking and retired. And Key has dropped Ministers, just to allow fresh blood to come through.

But both of our left-wing parties have contrived to build MMP parties that protect mediocrity and fail to incentivise electoral success. It’s a huge problem. We desperately need party structures that discourage MPs from making ridiculous unforced errors. MPs should be worried about what the 50,000 voters in their electorate will think of their decisions, not their friends in whatever faction empowers them, or the couple dozen activists who engage with them on twitter and support whatever they do.

Not all electorate MPs have better political skills than list MPs. But on average they do. And electorate MPs greatly value the grounding they get from engagement in their electorates. They have to deal with everyone – not just those who agree with them. But some List MPs do live in a bubble, where their instincts are out of touch with the wider community.

Again this is on average, not all cases.

The most successful opposition MP at the moment is Kelvin Davis. He’s also one of the newest MPs and his background is teaching. And he got in by winning a tough electoral race. That’s telling us something, I think, about the value of all those honors degrees in political science or backgrounds as political staffers or decades of parliamentary experience that his fellow, ineffectual opposition safe-seat or list MPs possess.


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