As in other advanced industrial democracies, the New Zealand political parties at the start of the twentieth century were typically elite-cadre type parties, in which few participated. [Read more below]
These elite-cadre organisations were mostly active and prominent at election time, when they sprung into life to aid the election of parliamentarians, who were generally the people who created the parties. The organisations were typically financed by only a small number of wealthy supporters, and led by the politicians themselves. In this sense there was really only one proper element to the party – the parliamentary party, as each party had no substantial extra-parliamentary organisation.
This was particularly the case with the establishment of the Liberal Party in 1889 and its election to government a year later which provided a watershed in the development of party politics in New Zealand. Although it then took a few years for opposition forces to develop themselves properly in response to the Liberal Party, it was from this point that political parties became the real basis of the New Zealand Parliament. All of these parties were elite-cadre based organisations. Within the parliaments prior to 1890, the existence of the party institution was underdeveloped, and although some proto-parties existed from the late 1870s, they failed to evolve into proper parties. The slow development of parties was related to backward social conditions, the dispersed nature of the settlements, slow communications, and the politics of provincialism (Chapman, 1989: p.15).
The organisation of the Liberal Party was firstly as an ‘association’, later becoming a ‘federation’, an elite organisation of notables rather than anything resembling a mass membership party. Its organisational capacity was clearly directed to facilitate the activities of its parliamentary leaders rather than any wider societal function. According to Chapman, the organisation was ‘more effective at raising sizeable contributions from a few and for coordinating party leaders’ tours and publicity than for gathering membership fees or regularly talking and listening to members out in the scattered electorates’ (Chapman, 1989: p.18; see also: Hamer, 1988).
The establishment of the Reform Party in 1909 clearly mimicked the organisational nature of the Liberals, again adopting a top down structure and providing the right for the MPs and their elite supporters to formulate the party’s policies (Chapman, 1989: p.18; see also: Milne, 1966: p.169). In a very short period of time the institution of the party was integrated into the political culture, and parliamentary politics became synonymous with party politics.
The party organisations continued to operate essentially as committees of notables, whose main concern was with winning elections and returning a team of candidates to public office. That this continued for some time was largely because parliamentary politics began to develop in a period (1850s-1890) when there was only a limited property franchise and, even after that, electoral affairs were largely managed by the middle class. As time went on, however, the New Zealand cadre parties adapted to universal suffrage, just as Maurice Duverger described the European parties doing. But these original parties – the Liberals, Reform, and then United – essentially remained in their traditional elitist form.
[This blog post is to be updated – any feedback or further information is very welcome]