The National Party has traditionally been most strongly supported by farmers and wealthy urban dwellers. But as with the Labour Party, National has been highly affected by class dealignment in New Zealand politics. Studies show that National’s withering employer support is being steadily replaced by voter support from across the socio-economic spectrum. [Read more below]
As the name suggests, National has always claimed to represent all New Zealand social classes and regions. To the extent that National has been able to realise this claim, it has done so by being a broad catch-all party, with a low ideological propensity. Despite its claim of universal representation, the National Party has traditionally been most strongly supported by farmers and wealthy urban dwellers. The National Party was originally formed from a coalition of three different parties with their own electoral bases. One part of the coalition – the Reform Party drew its support from smaller farmers and the rural service sector. The United Party ‘was the right wing of the old Liberal Party’, and its support came from ‘urban businessmen, the middle class and some skilled tradesmen’ as well as some farmers (Gustafson, 1997a: p.131). The Democrat Party was much more libertarian, and much like the modern Act party, the Democrats emphasised individual freedom and personal responsibility.
As shown in previous posts on political finance, in the past National has drawn much of its financial support from wealthy farmers, manufacturers, and commercial interests. At the same time, the party remained distant from working class voters. Political scientist John Roberts noted in 1978 that the pattern was very clear: ‘People with property or with jobs controlling property seek out and are sought out by the National party. The party has little contact with workers, teachers, the lower-paid professionals and tradesmen’ (Roberts, 1978: pp.74-75).
That National’s support has been very distinctive and class-based is illustrated by past voter surveys. The 1960 survey of the Dunedin Central electorate showed that National had the support of 86% of those classed as ‘upper professional and company directors’, and 67% of ‘lower professional, self-employed, and business people’ (Mitchell, 1962d: p.176). National had the following support in Dunedin Central: 86% of ‘upper professional and company directors’, 67% of ‘lower professional, self-employed, and business people’, 55% of ‘white-collar’ and ‘uniform’ workers, 15% of ‘skilled and semi-skilled "blue-collar" workers’, and 8% of ‘unskilled "blue-collar" workers’ (Mitchell, 1962d: p.176).
In a follow-up survey two years later, Mitchell found that National had the following support: 87% of ‘big sheep farmers, 86% of ‘directors of big companies, 73% of doctors, 47% of ‘bank tellers’, 29% of ‘teachers’, 18% of ‘clerks’, 11% of ‘foremen’, 7% of ‘shop assistants’, 6% of ‘carpenters’, and 5% of ‘wharf labourers’ (Mitchell, 1967: p.6).
The Palmerston North electorate survey of 1963 showed that the class alignment was stronger when respondents’ class categories were subjectively chosen, with National voters comprising only 25% of those who called themselves working class, 61% of those who called themselves middle class, and 75% of those who gave themselves the label of upper middle class (Robinson, 1967: pp.97-98). Similarly, the 1975 nationwide election survey found that National’s strongest support lay amongst farmers (76% supported National compared to just six% who voted Labour), ‘housewives’ (57% compared to 27% for Labour), and ‘professionals’ (55% support compared to 23% for Labour) (Levine and Robinson, 1976: p.139). Other occupational groups voting for National included unskilled workers (24% compared to 53% for Labour), the unemployed (25% compared to 43% for Labour), and students (35% compared to 27% for Labour) (Levine and Robinson, 1976: p.139).
Using data from the same study, Levine also argued that the National’s middle class basis was evident by the higher formal educational attainments of its supporters. Whereas only 1.1% of Labour supporters had a bachelor’s degree or university diploma, 6.5% of National supporters did (Levine, 1979: p.90).
National’s class dealignment
The class division between the major parties began to erode more quickly in the 1970s and some of National’s traditional constituency drifted to Labour. This drained the party of its more socially and economically liberal middle class membership and leadership. No longer was the party so attractive to the younger educated and affluent members, and many joined Labour (See: Kelsey, 1995: pp.25-26).
The party also ‘taxed away’ its urban support base, and lost its monopoly of professional middle class support because it was too conservative on social issues like abortion and apartheid, and too rigid about defence policies. In 1984, according to Harman, ‘We saw for the first time middle class New Zealanders voting against National.... because they were frustrated with inflation, they were frustrated with interest rates and I think also they were frustrated by the oppressive tightness of New Zealand society’ (quoted in Russell, 1996: p.15). It was indicative of the declining class distinctiveness of National that they lost the seat of Pakuranga to Social Credit’s John Morrison in the election.
Many small farmers also switched to Social Credit, which was becoming a more rural-based party. That small farmers began voting for Social Credit reflected the class division in rural areas that opened up at the end of the postwar boom. Social credit’s peculiar version of anti-capitalism appealed to small business-owners and other small farmers (Miller, 1989: pp.246-49). This points to the problem with the category of ‘farmers’. While workers are divided into ‘manuals’ and ‘non-manuals’, social scientists generally ignore the ‘small farmer’ and ‘big farmer’ division.
By the early 1980s National was having serious problems maintaining strong links with its class base. Instead, Muldoon’s appeal to what was called ‘Rob’s Mob’ and his essentially social democratic intentions ‘to protect the New Zealand of his "ordinary bloke" had strong appeal to the traditional working class’ (Russell, 1996: p.28). That the National Party had moved so far away from its core support base meant that in 1983 the breakaway New Zealand Party was able to be formed successfully on the right of the political spectrum. Like the former Democrat Party of the 1930s (and latterly the Act party), the New Zealand Party drew support from the liberal middle classes, and finance from wealthy urban business and professional interests.
The erosion of National’s class basis was partially because of the decline of its farming constituency. As the proportion of farmers in society has decreased, so has National’s class distinctiveness. Partly as a result of this agricultural decline, National has been forced to focus much more on securing an urban constituency. Also, just as the Labour Party has had difficulties retaining their traditional working class support whilst incorporating the middle class into the party, National has increasingly struggled in the 1980s and 1990s to keep farmers onside as it targeted working class voters. In fact, as early as the 1970s the party started moving ‘away from its rural roots to some degree and placed far more emphasis on the growth of manufacturing and secondary exports’ (Pearson and Thorns, 1983: p.144). But National continued to receive disproportionate support from the occupational grouping of farmers. On the basis of NZES data Vowles reported that in the 1996 election, one of the strongest effects of occupational class voting lay in the support that National received from ‘farmers and other agricultural entrepreneurs and managers’ (Vowles, 1998d: p.40; See also Aimer, 1992, who found that in the 1987 and 1990 elections, ‘only those in agricultural occupations consistently gave more than half their support… to one party – National’, p.334).
In terms of middle class support, National was also having difficulties. Ganley’s analysis of 1996 NZES data found that National picked up only 10% of its votes from those earning over $44,200 (compared to Labour’s 5% and New Zealand First’s 4%) (Ganley, 1998: p.25). He also discovered that National and Labour voters were equally likely to be professionals (20% of their vote), while 13% of New Zealand First voters were also professionals (ibid: p.27). The 1998 survey research by Perry and Webster also illustrated the nature of the support base for National.
Although those from the working class were much less likely to vote National, when it came to ‘employers or managers with less than 10 employees’ National had only 34% of their support, which is surprisingly low, especially since Labour had 32% support from this group. National’s support only slightly increased to 39% for ‘employers or managers 10+ employees’ – a traditional stronghold of support for the party. When it came to ‘professionals’ National actually had less support than Labour – 32 compared to 34%. National easily had the most support from those that owned farms, but at only 48%, this was considerably lower than the 76% support that Levine and Robinson discovered 23 years earlier (Perry and Webster, 1999: p.28). As shown in the previous post on the Labour Party, an increasing proportion of workers have supported National in recent years. Indicative of this was a large number of traditional Labour electorates being won by National – for example, in 1990 National’s Gilbert Myles won Mt Roskill.
According to the NZ Herald-DigiPoll’s 2002 election survey, Labour and National received similar levels of support from wealthy voters – of the richest 40% of society, National won 31.6% of the vote – not much more than Labour’s 28.2% (Collins, 2002). Similarly, a 2002 UMR opinion poll showed that National had the support of only 40% of those earning over $70,000 (compared to support for Labour of 39%) (Langdon, 2002). A spokeswoman for National said that the party’s own polling showed that although National was ‘well ahead’ on support with $77,000-plus earners, in the $52,000-to-$77,000 group of earners, support between Labour and National was more even (quoted in Langdon, 2002b).
Even more striking, an NBR poll at the same election showed that only 21% of professionals and managers supported National (compared to 50% supporting Labour) (Hill Cone, 2002). Also, where the party used to have strong support from ‘homemakers’ (57% in 1975), by 2002, they only had 9% (compared to Labour’s 59%) (ibid). None of these figures suggest that the parties’ social bases are remarkably polarised but, instead, that social structure is playing a decreasing role in voting.
National’s withering employer support
In the late 1990s National began to lose its strong employer support. Much like in the mid-1980s when the business community grew tired of the Muldoon administration, the commercial world was losing faith in Jenny Shipley’s government and was sufficiently reassured by Labour’s business-friendly overtures that it was willing to give Labour a chance to govern. The Independent newspaper’s 1998 survey of employers reported that they believed the National government should be voted out:
Frustrated by a lack of leadership, two years of policy paralysis and inept and rudderless government, the New Zealand business community has turned its back on the National Party, and Prime Minister Jenny Shipley. Characterising the current regime as confused, inert, visionless, unstable and politically opportunistic, most of the 30 business leaders surveyed in-depth by The Independent expect an early election (McManus, 1998: p.12).
The survey reported that business leaders expected or wanted the defeat of the National Party government, believing that ‘the government must go – and the quicker the better’ (McManus, 1998: p.12). One respondent told the newspaper that ‘A large number of quite senior business people are completely relaxed about a change of government and the [political donations] will reflect that’ (quoted in McManus, ibid). Donations declared to the Electoral Commission confirmed this point of view. Chapter Seven shows, donations from business have been decreasing over the years as National has correspondingly lost its natural position as the preferred party of business.
The social composition of National Party caucuses
The elite social composition of National MPs has also been changing. Historically, the party has drawn most of its parliamentarians from its traditional core group of supporters: higher-income groups, such as farmers, professionals (lawyers and accountants especially), and businesspeople (Robinson, 1967: p.102). In 1969, for instance, Mitchell reported on National’s candidates for election, outlining that 40% of the party’s candidates were farmers, 24% were ‘top professionals’ and six% were company directors (Mitchell, 1969b: p.8). In the 1978 general election, John Roberts noted that National had 12 business executives standing for the election, together with nine lawyers and three teachers (Roberts, 1978: p.74). In the 1990s the parliamentary party was gradually becoming dominated by professionals. Farmers only made up a quarter of a caucus dominated by those with professional backgrounds (constituting about a third of the caucus).
The move away from its farming constituency was temporarily halted by National’s heavy defeat at the 1984 general election in which the party lost most of its urban seats. The new parliamentary caucus was, by default, almost entirely made up of representatives from rural and provincial seats. Of the 45 metropolitan electorates within the five main cities, National held only seven in 1984 – and only one of which was outside Auckland (Fendalton).
Back in power in 1990, the makeup of the first Bolger Cabinet was indicative that the National Party was still tied to its rural roots. Thirteen former farmers were appointed to the twenty-MP cabinet, together with a further three MPs from rural or provincial areas, while there was only one MP included from a metropolitan Auckland seat (See McLoughlin, 1992a: p.88; Vowles, 1992c: p.353; and Miller and Catt, 1993: p.29).
Furthermore, the Prime Minister himself was a farmer and a former office holder in Federated Farmers (Vowles, 1992c: p.353). Politically, however, the National Government was economically liberal and not overtly farmer-focused. By the end of the 1990s, farmers were clearly a decreasing influence in politics and society, and in 1999 there were only 14 MPs in Parliament who gave their occupation as ‘farmer’, and 4 of them were not in the National Party (Molesworth, 1999d: p.21).
National Party historian Barry Gustafson told one newspaper that ‘The National Party has also become less representative of its traditional constituency. The two groups that used to dominate National cabinets, MPs from rich urban seats and strong rural electorates, have been replaced by "middle-class, suburban types"‘ (Venter, 1999a: p.6; see also: Vowles, 1992c: p.353; and Kelsey, 1995: p.40).
By 1999 Richard Harman was also reporting that National, like the other parties, lacked MPs with a business background, saying that the party list was ‘heavy with lawyers, accountants and doctors’ (Harman, 1999: p.23). In the mid-1990s, the only National Party ministers with a background in business were Philip Burdon and Bruce Cliffe, and by the time the party left office in 1999 it had very few MPs with business backgrounds at all (Bedford and Martin, 1999: p.15). Likewise, in 2002 Gordon Campbell figured that the only National Party candidates with farming experience were ‘Bill English, David Carter, Gavan Herlihy, Eric Roy, Shane Arden, and… Brian Connell’ (Campbell, 2002a: p.22). In terms of the extra-parliamentary party as well, the agricultural element was weakening in the organisation. See: Spoonley (1987: pp.229-230), who argues that there has been significant tensions between the National Party organisation and its traditional constituencies: ‘This cleavage is paralleled by a division between the rural and urban sections of the party, as the former has lost much of the dominant position within the party organisation.... The antagonisms, as yet unresolved, have affected the membership base of the National Party’.
Although the party elected an ex-farmer as president in 1989, Geoff Thompson was also a lawyer and had been an MP between 1978 and 1984. Since the 1980s, most presidents – Sue Woods, Neville Young, John Collinge, John Slater, Michelle Boag, and Judy Kirk – have been urban professionals.