The connection between New Zealand’s political parties and their social bases of support is often stressed by political scientists and commentators. This is because Labour has traditionally derived most of its support from lower socioeconomic voters in the cities, while wealthier voters in both urban and rural areas have formed National’s voter base. This new series of blog posts challenges the idea that such a relationship between parties and social structure still exists, and suggests that party competition is structured less-and-less by this traditional socioeconomic left-right cleavage. Increasingly, other social cleavages (based on characteristics such as ethnicity, gender and location) shape party politics – but even these are weak. The notion that Labour is a party of working people and National is the party of farming and business is thus disputed, and instead, it is shown that these parties, as well as the newly-established ones, increasingly find their support in all sections of society. This trend plays an important part in the decline of the institution of party in New Zealand and the erosion of ideology in particular. [Read more below]
The wider focus of this series of blog posts is an examination of the interrelationships between the cleavages in society and the party system. Cleavages are lines of division in society and politics that separate groups that have different attributes. This blog differentiates between social and political cleavages. Social cleavages are those based on identifiable traits that divide society, such as gender, religion, class, ethnicity, language, and region. Political cleavages are those based on ideology, attitudes and opinion, and they divide society and the party system. The two types of cleavages are interrelated, as often social cleavages are politicised (or ‘partisised’), hence becoming political cleavages (or ‘issue dimensions’). However, as Australian political scientist Dean Jaensch crucially points out, ‘not all social cleavages become political cleavages, and not all political cleavages are reflections of a social cleavage’ (Jaensch, 1994: p.41). Put another way, social cleavages just divide society, while political ones divide both society and the party system. This series of blog posts is essentially concerned with the extent to which social cleavages have been translated into political cleavages in the New Zealand party system.
Most writers on this subject have argued that the New Zealand party system is overwhelmingly characterised by one dominant cleavage – the left-right class cleavage, otherwise referred to as the socioeconomic, economic or materialist cleavage. This relationship between social structure and the distribution of votes has also been seen as strongly driving the ideologies of the parties, allegedly making the Labour Party a left-wing (or socialist) party and the National Party a right-wing and free enterprise, conservative party. For example, Richard Mulgan writes:
This social cleavage at the axis of the two-party system reflects the historical origins of the two parties, with Labour the socialist party of unionists and workers and National the anti-socialist party of farmers and business people. This divide, which has been reflected in the economically left-wing and right-wing orientations of the parties, has provided the basic assumption on which political activists and commentators have estimated where each party’s supporters are to be found (Mulgan, 1997a: p.272).
Alternative cleavages are also often identified, such as those based on ethnicity, geography and religion. In addition, a postmaterialist liberal-conservative political cleavage is also increasingly identified – one that might be seen to encompass most of these alternative cleavages and broadly represent non-economic societal issues. This series of posts argues that these alternative cleavages are becoming relatively stronger, and that the traditionally dominant socioeconomic cleavage has lost much of its potency.
The next blog post will look at the decline of the class cleavage, examining the nature of class voting in New Zealand and, in particular, highlighting the empirical research which provides evidence that the links between class and party are weakening. The posts that follow this will detail the electoral relationships between the individual political parties and voters defined by class. Following on from this, the next posts will examine the alternative cleavages to ascertain their impact on the party system and whether their influence is increasing with the decline of the class cleavage. This post will argue that although no one significant social cleavage has risen to replace the class cleavage, a general postmaterialist political cleavage is increasingly organising party competition, with issues and differences of values, psychology, culture and identity often configuring and shaping party politics.
In the final blog posts in this thread, some of the implications of the relative insignificance of social cleavages for parliamentary politics are investigated. In particular, they will argue that the increasing detachment of parties from any fixed social bases of support has resulted in a reduction of pressure on political parties to act on behalf of a particular constituency. This has led to ideological erosion. Because the traditional divide between social classes has ceased to be a source of political conflict, National and Labour, as well as their satellite minor parties, have been separated from their ideological moorings. This change has helped to drastically rearrange New Zealand party politics, removing the ideological anchors that used to guide the way the party system operated. It is argued that more and more parties operate simply as vehicles for groups or teams of politicians seeking office.