This series of blog posts has detailed one way in which the New Zealand parties are becoming less connected with civil society. The social constituencies are clearly being detached from the parties. This is because of the declining influence of class (in particular) and social structure (more generally) in shaping voting behaviour. And while class has become less important in New Zealand party politics, it is significant that there has been no alternative social cleavage emerging to configure and shape the party system. In this environment the differences between parties have narrowed and the parties compete without any strong coherence. [Read more below]
The decline of social cleavages has had a number of ramifications that relate to the changes in political competition discussed elsewhere on liberation. The effect of these trends, and of the changing perceptions of political interest which accompany them, is to produce the phenomenon of convergence in political behaviour among parties and individuals on different sides of the old cleavage systems. This is in line with Otto Kirchheimer’s view in the 1960s that the changing nature of political parties is due to the erosion of traditional social boundaries. With the weakening of social cleavages that previously underpinned stable party systems, parties have been looking to attract voters from whatever social groups they can.
Changes in party systems have therefore become possible as appeals based on social attachment and loyalty to particular parties have broken down. These once-strong alignments meant that parties enjoyed very strong identities and constituencies, which encouraged a policy-pursuing orientation. In 2008 the strength of this relationship is much reduced. Parties now find it increasingly difficult to maintain a separate identity and their constituencies are much more diverse and fickle in their support. There is little pressure for parties to pursue policy and retain any strong distinctiveness.
The decline of social cleavages also means that the ability of parties to plausibly articulate the interests of civil society and its citizens is up for question. Therefore New Zealand political parties are losing their ability to structure issues, and represent and aggregate societal interests. This series of blog posts has pointed out that this comes out of the erosion of cleavage politics and the consequent weakening of linkages that parties have with social groups. This will be a theme that is elaborated on in future blog posts.
The continued breakdown of the socio-economic framework has therefore both produced and continued to epitomise a new era of politics in New Zealand. In this era the old bipolar support bases and processes have been eroded and are replaced by an emerging, but weak, postmaterialist cleavage. Yet Brechtel and Kaiser point out, ‘postmaterialist issues continue to be interpreted in terms of the traditional left-right dimension’ (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.24). These blog posts have argued that this cleavage is actually an entirely different one to the traditional left-right dimension, and therefore should not be analysed and measured on the same scale as economic issues.
Changes in society and politics suggest that, at least for the time being, class is not the all-dominant cleavage structuring the party system. Moreover, although political commentators continue to explain New Zealand politics by reference to the left-right spectrum, it is becoming more difficult to identify a consistent pattern that differentiates left from right. No other grand line of cleavage looks likely to replace the declining class cleavage. Without a strong social cleavage operating, the differences between parties have narrowed and the parties compete without any strong coherence.