You know a general election is near when political parties start announcing their party lists, as the Labour Party did this week.

Broadcaster, urban Maori authority luminary, and former Alliance Party MP Willie Jackson managed to spoil what should have been a very good news story for Andrew Little and Labour by letting the world know that he was apparently (briefly) unhappy with his placement on the yet-to-be announced list.

Willie's mathematical abilities must have failed him at least for a while.

His position at 21st on Labour's list is a very electable slot and he should return to Parliament in the September general election if Labour holds its 27 electorate seats and scores the 30 per cent of the party vote in the election that it has been regularly achieving in the polls.


The media, sensing disunity, made a meal of what was just an egotistical hissy fit obscuring the fact that the Labour Party has attracted real talent to its list.

These party lists are a requirement of the mixed member proportional system of election (MMP) New Zealand adopted by referendum in 1993 and featuring in general elections since 1996.

After every election, surveys are conducted into how much voters understand about the system and every time huge areas of ignorance are revealed, so it's worth another reminder of just how this system works.

Unlike the previous first past the post system, all voters now have two votes, one is for a candidate in the electorate in which the voter lives, and the other is for the party the voter wants to see as part of the government.

It is the party vote that decides the make-up of Parliament and therefore who governs post-election.

A party gets representation in Parliament if it scores more than 5 per cent of the party vote, though winning just one electorate validates a sub-5 per cent party vote.

This wrinkle can and does create anomalies and John Key would possibly have never become prime minister without it.

MMP was devised for post-war West Germany by the American occupying forces, with the objective of avoiding another Nazi-type takeover.

MMP makes it very difficult for a single party to govern alone and multi-party government has been the outcome in New Zealand since 1996 (though National went close to one-party rule in 2014).

If you are managing an election campaign under MMP, as I did four times, the biggest challenge is to focus your troops on the all-important party vote.

I recall reviewing the local Labour campaign committees' orders for hoardings and billboards in 1999 and discovering that virtually all of the orders were for candidate-vote publicity.

I had to raise a significant sum to buy party-vote hoardings which featured a picture of Helen Clark and the slogan "Party Vote Labour".

These went free of charge to the local campaigns before the candidate publicity was dispatched, in an attempt to get them into the prime sites.

This worked to some degree, but local focus is understandable given the abstract nature of the party vote and the fact that local campaigns are led by candidates.

With John Key as Leader, National's party-vote campaign put the focus exclusively on Key and leveraged his long-running popularity into a 45 per cent-plus party vote to score three times in a row.

In 2011 and 2014, Labour's party-vote campaign was weak to non-existent, but look for a very different approach this year.

In order to win in September, Labour will have to encourage its local campaign organisations to mount a "two ticks" campaign and to underline the primacy of the party vote.

The make-up of the Labour Party's list will help in this regard.

Many of its best and brightest candidates will rely on getting elected from the list and are therefore dependent on Labour doing a lot better in the party vote than the 25 per cent it scored in 2014.

These include not just Willie Jackson but party leader Andrew Little, the wily and seasoned Trevor Mallard, David Parker, who is one of the party's best brains, and an awful lot of really valuable and attractive new blood.

It will be fascinating to see how the big parties shape their party-vote campaigns.

Neither Bill English nor Andrew Little has the charisma or the X-factor many saw in John Key, so both parties will be tempted to move away from the Helen Clark/John Key personality-based party-vote battles.

If I was running Labour's party-vote push, I'd be turning a group of the list hopefuls into a travelling party-vote task force and look at including Jacinda Ardern in all advertising.

If Labour manages to narrow the gap between its party vote and candidate vote by half, the party will be competitive in September.