The establishment of the Labour Party in 1916 heralded the arrival of a new form of party organisation, the class mass party, which would eventually characterise all parties in New Zealand. [Read more below]
Based on a union-model of organising, the mass party model was supposed to be a large body of fee-paying members, who through their branches, electorates and conferences, contributed to the democratic decisions of the party, such as policy formulation and the selection of candidates. This model was therefore characterised by a programmatic emphasis and the goal of a large democratic movement.
Unlike the elite-cadre party that preceded it, the mass party attempted to maximise its membership, organising itself primarily in the electorate, where it had educative and social functions. The highly democratic nature of the party was apparent in that party finance came in small amounts from many sources, and an army of activists carried out the party work, such as publicity and canvassing. The organisation of the mass party was also more centralised and more structured than that of the elite-cadre party. For this reason the model is sometimes termed the bureaucratic mass party.
Significantly, this new party-type was more programmatic than anything that had gone before. Whereas the elite-cadre model was preoccupied with electoral success, the mass membership party was typically concerned with formulating policy and membership participation. The organisation’s main function was to devise a comprehensive set of policies to present to the electorate, which was related to a distinctive ideology. In line with this, because members in a mass party were ostensibly interested in matters of doctrine and policy they remained active between elections.
In its classic form, parliamentary activity and success was not the ‘be all and end all’ in the mass party, nor was it even necessarily the final goal. In its heuristically pure form, the principal objective of the mass party was to advance an ideological goal, and for many of those involved, the decision to participate in electoral activity was merely a tactical one that was seen as a means of getting its views across to the community.
The mass membership party model originated on the left of the political spectrum, yet Duverger’s conclusion was that, because of the success of left-wing mass parties, they would be emulated organisationally by their conservative opponents who would abandon the elite-cadre model. This did in fact happen, and in New Zealand Duverger’s ‘contagion from the left’ meant that the parties of the right reconfigured themselves after the 1935 election of the First Labour Government, with the resulting body, the National Party, becoming a hierarchically-structured, mass member party which was very different to its Liberal, United and Reform predecessors (Gustafson, 1997c: p.142).
Throughout the world the new mass membership parties clearly belonged to civil society, and according to Peter Mair, ‘sought to express and then implement the interests of their constituency within public policy’ (Mair, 1997: p.125). Strongly rooted in distinctive parts of the community, these mass parties were hierarchical and disciplined, and emphasized the engagement and involvement of the citizenry (Mair, 1997: p.125). In line with this, the success and strength of such parties was measured by their relationships with civil society – in particular by membership numbers. Attention given to the parties – academic or otherwise – was therefore focused on both the parliamentary wing and the extra-parliamentary party made up of members, branches, a head office and its office holders.
[This blog post is to be updated – any feedback or further information is very welcome]