This series of blog posts has shown that the relevance of the class cleavage has declined for party politics in New Zealand, and that while the ‘alternative’ cleavages based on social groups have become more relatively more significant, these dimensions remain weak. Apart from the Maori Party, no other political party has succeeded by competing purely on any of these social cleavages. (All the parties have, however, increasingly used the political cleavage of postmaterialist issues and values to define themselves). The detachment of party politics from social cleavages contributes to a number of negative aspects in the party system, and the next blog posts will outline three negative implications of the declining influence of the class cleavage as well as the failure of alternative social cleavages to replace it. This first one, argues that voter volatility increases in tandem with decreasing party alignments. [Read more below]
The decline in the salience of social class contributes to ideological volatility because without the presence of class anchors, each party’s programme relates more fluidly to broad attitudes within the community. Therefore, the fact that so many modern political parties are so ‘ideologically slippery’ cannot simply be explained by the personal office-seeking behaviour (or opportunism) of their leaders, but should also be seen as a reflection of the parties’ unstable and contradictory support bases. Given that the parties are built on the foundations of social cleavages, then the transformation in the character of these social groupings and their declining electoral relationship to political parties is likely to make politics more fluid, leading to different kinds of appeals, styles of leadership, different tensions within party organisations, and of course fluctuations in policy.
The decline in politicisation of social cleavages is also related to increased voter volatility and general declines in electoral participation. David Denver has argued that voter volatility increases in tandem with decreasing party alignments:
Strong party identification acted like an anchor, binding the voter securely to his or her party and thus ensuring stability in party support over lengthy periods (and a lifetime in many cases). When the anchor is loosened the voter is likely to drift on the electoral sea being pushed backwards and forwards by temporary prevailing winds. Electoral volatility increases and stability decreases (Denver, 1996: p.177).
In New Zealand voter ties to a particular party are disappearing (this topic will be examined in a future blog post). Such loyalty to a party brand used to be based largely upon the class cleavage, which meant that in the 1960s, one survey suggested that 79% of voters for Labour and 71% of voters for National had never voted for any other party (Mitchell, 1962d: pp.196-197). This stability eroded in the late-1970s when, according to James, ‘the percentage who had voted the same party through just three elections had dropped to 45%’ (James, 2002f).