Throughout the twentieth century it was commonplace for New Zealand’s political parties to be backed by various organised sections of New Zealand society (now often termed ‘third parties’). Parties parties were heavily anchored in societal organisations such as interest groups, community organisations and businesses. Towards the end of the century there was a blurring of this support, and these days societal organisations that might be expected to be on friendly terms with National can be found on good terms with Labour, and vice versa. But more than anything, such institutional-party relations have withered. [Read more below]
When New Zealand’s first political party – the Liberal Party – took office in 1890 it was backed by a whole array of organised social forces. According to Les Cleveland, the Liberals’ supporters included ‘trade unions, trades and labour councils, the Knights of Labour, the unemployed, recent immigrants and land-hungry people, including a great many small farmers. Also important were the supporters of Friendly Societies and craft unions’ (Cleveland, 1977: p.13). Over the following century, New Zealand’s main political parties were all backed by various organised sections of New Zealand society. It became widely acceptable for interest groups, community organisations and businesses to have partisan ties.
Yet for the most part, the relationships between parties and other organisations have been informal and often covert. The National Party, in particular, has had only indirect and informal relationships with societal organisations. Nonetheless these informal and less tangible relationships can still be significant. According to sociologist Frank Parkin, writing of the situation in Britain in the 1960s, the majority of the established institutions of society have acted in a way to advantage the Conservative Party:
Examples of such institutions would include the Established Church, the public schools and ancient universities, the elites of the military establishment, the press and the mass media, the monarchy and the aristocracy, and finally and most importantly, the institutional complex of private property and capitalist enterprise which dominates the economic sector… All of which could be said to embody values which are in close accord with the ideology of Conservatism (Parkin, 1967: p.280).
Conversely, the British Labour Party has traditionally benefited not just from the trade union movement but also from the roles played by ‘urban local government, the co-operative movement, non-conformist churches, nationalised industries and council house estates’ (Debnam, 1990: p.19). The New Zealand counterparts of these institutions have often had a similar relationship to the National and Labour parties. Charles Bennett, when he was President of the Labour Party in 1976, complained of the bias towards the National Party inherent in many resource-rich and seemingly independent local and statutory bodies. He claimed that such organisations were dominated by National Party members and supporters:
Organisations like Chambers of Commerce, Federated Farmers, some sections of importers, harbour boards, and education boards all added effectively to the stream of criticism when a Labour government holds office but they seem to be remarkably quiet at the present time [when a National government is in office] (quoted in Cleveland, 1977: p.137).
However, the National Party might also allege that the Labour Party has its own institutional strongholds – typically found in various university departments, secondary schools, within much of the liberal media, and within the health and arts sectors. According to Trotter, ‘Many on the Right would object that the Left never really needed to establish think tanks because most of the History, Political Science, Sociology and Economics departments of our universities did the job for them’ (Trotter, 1999e: p.17). But whereas Parkin describes a British situation in which the parties are heavily anchored in societal organisations, this cannot, as Debnam argues, be said to have existed to the same degree in New Zealand:
By contrast, the situation is very different in New Zealand because it is a society that is less extensively institutionalised. Although the two major parties have represented distinctive interests, similar in many respects to the interests represented by the British Conservative and Labour Parties, those interests do not have the same depth of institutional support, and are not marked off from each other by the distinctive icons of divergent sub-cultures, as is the case in Britain. In other words, the two sides are closer together in New Zealand, and their central positions are not so institutionally entrenched (Debnam, 1990: p.20).
Furthermore, although both National and Labour have in the past relied on their own institutional bases, there has been a blurring of this support in the last three decades, together with a decline in the strength of some of these institutions. As examined later in another blog post, many of the societal organisations on both sides of the party divide have been in decline in recent years. Under attack, or in decline as social forces, are the universities, the established churches, medical professions, state-owned industries, trade unions and local government (Debnam, 1990: p.20). This blog post argues that the decline of many of these old societal organisations is both a cause and consequence of the erosion of the traditional class cleavages, which had tended to preserve the basis of the two-party political system.
Institutional-party relations have been mixed-up by the political, social and economic turbulence of the last three decades and the relationships continue to be largely in flux. Societal organisations that might be expected to be on friendly terms with National can be found on good terms with Labour, and vice versa. Therefore, in understanding the New Zealand party system, the old patterns of organisational support cannot be taken for granted or simply assumed – each relationship must be re-evaluated. For example, Trotter has commented that while the education sector once acted in favour of left-wing parties, this is no longer necessarily the case: ‘It is, however, less common to encounter overt left-wing sympathies within the academic caste in the late 1990s than was the case, say, in the 1970s. The demise of the Soviet Union, the relentless encroachment of post-modernist thought within the academy, and the general hostility of university administrators to academic staff who take their "critic and conscience" role too seriously have weakened the universities when it comes to generating “progressive new ideas”‘ (Trotter, 1999e: p.17). Both conservative/right-wing and liberal/left-wing institutions are no longer nearly as one-sided in their support for a party as they once were, and where linkages do exist, they are more complex than in the past.