Due to the declining salience of social structure (and class in particular) in structuring party competition, more than ever before electors in New Zealand now making voting choices on the basis of trivialities such as leadership charisma, parliamentary scandals, and general personality-driven politics. [Read more below]
That class and structural factors were formerly so vital to New Zealand politics was reflected in the fact that personalities, trivial issues, and parliamentary scandals traditionally played only a very limited role in structuring and configuring the way politics operates. Commenting on pre-1975 politics, John Roberts argued, ‘Political opinion, backed by the evidence of the polls, suggests that the predominant influence on political behaviour is party allegiance. The personalities of candidates and leaders run a very distant second’ (Roberts, 1978: p.93).
Similarly, writing in 1967, when New Zealand politics was still largely structured around class, Alan Robinson argued that this class-focus inhibited the importance of personality politics: ‘The dominance in New Zealand elections of mass parties linked with occupational interests is reflected in the unimportance of local personalities and issues in determining election results’ (Robinson, 1967: p.111). If Robinson was correct, then the logical corollary of the decline of ‘mass parties linked with occupational interests’ is an increased importance of personalities in politics. In the absence of social cleavages in party politics – fewer sociological phenomena are influencing voting behaviour – so-called ‘issue voting’ is now more important than ever. Certainly in the political science literature there is a belief that the influence of issues on voting is greater in periods of class dealignment. Voters are now said to be more likely to choose parties on the basis of party policy and contemporary issues (Levine and Roberts, 1992).
More than ever, voters are now believed to conform to the Downsian model of voting – they consider their position on issues and then vote for the party which offers the closest match. However, this shift also means that electors make up their minds on the basis of trivialities such as leadership charisma, parliamentary scandals and so forth. Therefore, rather than increasing the salience of issues-based politics, the decreasing relevance of any social base in New Zealand politics is likely to be responsible for the increasing personality-driven politics of the modern age.
Many political commentators have observed how the less coherent and structured nature of contemporary politics has led to an increased attention on personality and leadership in New Zealand politics. This is especially the case in election campaigns, where the focus of voter interest, media coverage, and party marketing has shifted a great deal towards party leaders. Ruth Laugesen, for example, has written how, ‘With parties and policies in this tangled, overlapping state, a befuddled electorate is bound to be drawn to the simpler issues of personality and leadership’ (Laugesen, 1996b: p.2; see also: Haywood and Rudd, 2000; Aimer, 1997; and Jackson (1991).
This increased focus on leadership is especially the case for the newer and smaller parties due to their undeveloped social bases:
In particular, electoral support for new parties which have not yet established strong social roots in the community is likely to be especially dependent on the public profile of their leaders. Thus, the success of the Alliance and New Zealand First was closely linked to the popularity of their leaders (Mulgan, 1997a: p.281).
Without the political parties representing the interests of various social groups, there is little delineation between the various shades of mainstream party opinion, and thus ideological differences disappear. Instead, MPs appear as ‘personalities’ rather than as representatives of counterpoised political programmes. Without a social cleavage influencing party competition, there is
little pressure on politicians to act in the clear-cut interests of any distinct class in society. With all sides competing to appeal to the nebulous no-man’s land of ‘statistical politics’ where the electorate only exists in as far as the latest opinion poll describes it, there has been a noticeable tendency for politicians and parties to withdraw from contentious issues and policies, and for politics in general to become bland and superficial (Welch, 1998: p.694).