Previous blog posts in this series about the social bases of political parties in New Zealand have concentrated on the traditional class cleavage which relates to the economic left-right ideological spectrum. Changes in society and politics suggest that, at least for the time being, class is not the all-dominant cleavage structuring the party system. But while the relevance of the class cleavage has declined for party politics, are there now alternative societal cleavages relating to geography, ethnicity, gender, age, religious, or even postmaterialism that are now structuring the political party competition in New Zealand? [Read more below]
It is said that the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system helped perpetuate the dominance of the socio-economic dimension by encouraging only the strongest cleavage in society to be reflected in the political parties (Barker and McLeay, 2000: p.144). Meanwhile proportional representation electoral systems such as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) are said to encourage the development of a party system around additional cleavages to the traditional socio-economic one.
On the basis of this, some commentators argued that ‘issue dimensions previously suppressed by the unidimensional and bipolar tendencies of FPP would emerge in parliament’ under MMP (ibid). Because additional parties would be represented in Parliament, other issue dimensions and cleavages would be fostered or released. In a limited sense this has indeed happened, as the current parties in Parliament increasingly operate along alternatives to the basic socio-economic dimension.
As pointed out in previous blog posts, most political scientists have either argued that New Zealand lacks more than one significant social cleavage or similarly that the economic social cleavage dominates political conflict. This was also the conclusion reached by Brechtel and Kaiser after conducting their 1997 survey of experts.
However, when I repeated their survey in 2003, it showed that many additional cleavages are now identified by political scientists. As with the 1997 survey, the 2003 survey asked the experts to locate the parties on the left-right dimension, to state the dimension’s importance, but also to name any additional issue dimensions, locating the parties on it, and stating its importance. 75% of respondents mentioned additional dimensions, up from 47% in 1997.
Furthermore, whereas 100% of the 1997 respondents judged the economic dimension as the most important (on a five-point scale), by 2003 only 50% of respondents characterised the economic dimension as the most significant, with the other 50% saying that the alternative cleavages are either just as important or more important. When the 1997 respondents estimated the importance of the economic left-right dimension on a five-point scale from 1 (very low importance) to 5 (very high importance), they provided a mean value of 4.0. By contrast, in 2003 the survey found the mean value of the economic left-right dimension had declined to 3.2.
These results suggest that the New Zealand party system is increasingly multi-dimensional. This shows that more attention needs to be paid to the alternative cleavages, and in particular to the social basis of those cleavages, which are examined in the following blog posts in this series.