The detachment of political parties from their social constituencies described in previous blog posts has obviously resulted in a reduction of pressure on political parties to act on behalf of particular social groups. This has pushed political parties in New Zealand to become (a) more pragmatic, and (b) more politically centrist [Read more below]
Hyam Gold has argued that the weakening social cleavages mean that governments and parties can afford to be less sensitive to certain societal interests:
If voters have become less attentive to certain group differences (occupational class for example), governments can afford to be less sensitive to these differences as well. Policies previously ruled out because of the group antagonisms they threatened to arouse can now become much more acceptable…. policies such as income and wealth redistribution, that may have been pursued in response to group demands or in order to contain group antagonisms, can now be given a lesser priority, since their electoral payoff diminishes once group factors bear less and less on partisanship (Gold, 1989: p.420).
This was also the conclusion of Jack Vowles and Ian McAllister in their study of the neo-liberal reforms carried out by the Australian and New Zealand Labour parties in the 1980s. In this they show that it was the detachment of the parties from their working class bases of support that, in part, enabled the reforms to be adopted:
These declining numbers of voters within the core support groups for the two parties was therefore one factor facilitating the adoption of deregulatory policies. Nevertheless, such a strategy could only have been adopted if there was a widespread belief that the electoral consequences would not be disastrous. As it happened, the party elites had grounds for discounting any possible adverse electoral consequences. In both countries... a process of detachment or dealignment had been under way in which the major political parties had become progressively more diverse in their sources of electoral support and less dependent upon the support of their traditional social groups (Vowles and McAllister, 1996: pp.194-195).
Vowles and McAllister found that, when compared to the 1960s and 1970s, electoral constraints on policy innovation in the 1980s had weakened, and that compared to its Australian counterpart the New Zealand Labour Party was even ‘freer to break away from its traditional social moorings’ and carry out non-traditional policy innovations (Vowles and McAllister, 1996: p.200). Likewise, according to Honey and Barnett, Labour in the 1980s could afford to restructure industries such as forestry and mining, thereby alienating its voter support in areas because the new fluidness of the class cleavage meant that the party could consequently pick up ‘support from the economic elite of the upper income suburbs’ (Honey and Barnett, 1990: p.92). Raymond Miller also argues that this decline in class pressure has had a significant effect, encouraging Labour in the 1990s ‘to modify its taxation and social spending priorities with a view to broadening its appeal among middle-income voters’ (Miller, 2001: p.236).
National’s situation has been similar. Between 1975 and 1984, class dealignment allowed – or encouraged – the Muldoon National Government to attempt to keep the postwar social democratic consensus and welfare state intact. When back in government in the 1990s, National first abandoned its core supporters’ expectations when it refused to abolish the national superannuation surcharge as it had promised. Then National essentially halted the neo-liberal reform process after only one term, thus going against the demands of its traditional middle class, farming and business constituencies.
This is not to suggest that the parties’ support bases no longer have any consequences for the parties. Their traditional class moorings do still play a role in the policies that parties choose and governments pursue. For example, when the Fourth Labour Government came to office ‘Few cabinet ministers seriously supported their Government’s reimposition of compulsory trade union membership… but most believed it was "a price which had to be paid" to a key constituency’ (Walker, 1989: p.221). Labour refrained from extending the neo-liberal reforms into other areas such as the labour market for the same reasons. In contrast, the sequencing of their neo-liberal reforms meant that farmers were the first group in society to have their state subsidies cut. Similarly, when the Fourth National Government found itself in financial troubles after taking office in 1990, it chose to cut expenditure amongst Labour’s constituency rather than its own. Richardson’s cuts in public expenditure fell hardest on beneficiaries because they were calculated to be relatively less damaging to National in electoral terms as few beneficiaries were thought to vote for the party (Trotter (21 Jul 1999d). However in the 2002 election, Interestingly the National Party abandoned its ‘market rents’ policy on state housing, in an obvious attempt to appeal to beneficiaries.
Likewise, in implementing the Employment Contracts Act – legislation that tilted industrial relations in favour of employers – the National Government did not risk alienating its traditional support base. Such examples represent the typical way that politics used to operate, but can perhaps now be regarded as exceptions to the rule. The fact that all the parties can adopt or implement policies that impact negatively on their traditional or supposed supporters reflects the fact that such political parties are no longer critically reliant on such constituencies.
The decline of class conflict discussed in the blog post on the Decline of class politics means that the distinctiveness (or sense of separateness) of parties is less and less apparent. And as they all share more and more characteristics, the various parties are finding themselves sharing the same electoral market (Mair, 1997: p.135). This decline in societal class conflict has reduced pressure on the parties, allowing convergence in the political styles of politicians and parties. Having been shorn of their close relationships with social groups, parties are now behaving more in terms of Anthony Downs’ abstract model of maximising political party behaviour which takes no real account of politicised social cleavages. Instead, in this model, each party aims to win the middle ground support, and therefore parties increasingly adopt similar programmes or borrow electorally popular ideas from each other. Each party’s support is fluidly related to broad attitudes within the community, rather than resting on a firm social base.
Arguably, this decline in the class nature of the parties also depoliticises politics. It is in this context that technocratic and managerial forces prevail. This is an argument made by sociologist Kevin Clements:
While some commentators applaud this as a sign that we are moving into a post-industrial society where all problems are defined in technical terms and politics becomes irrelevant… in the short term, such a move does increase the power of permanent technocrats within the public service and in the long term raises fundamental questions about the essential differences between New Zealand political parties. If parties do not represent specific class interests then their role will become increasingly irrelevant since they will begin to converge on all major issues (Clements, 1982: p.159; see also: Downs, 1957: pp.96-114).
Clements, who was writing in 1982, cited the growing influence of the technocrats in the political systems of other countries, and pointed out that where they dominated, political parties had ‘become a meaningless irrelevance, democratic processes are threatened and eventually undermined. In these situations, major corporations shape the economic policies of government safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be put to a democratic test’ (Clements, 1982: p.164). Noting that in New Zealand the Labour Party was pursing an increasingly class-less strategy and predominantly selecting candidates that Clements described as ‘middle class professionals with technical expertise’ or ‘technocrats’, he forewarned that possibility of a Labour government restructuring the economy in favour of the wealthy:
Unless the Labour Party pursues a deliberate policy of ensuring that its technical experts serve the interests of the weakest rather than the strongest groups in New Zealand, then technical elites will exert a profound influence over the allocation of scarce New Zealand resources (ibid: p.159, 160).
A decade after that reform process ended, the result of the declining politicisation of social cleavages is now a sort of ideological stalemate. While such pragmatic tendencies certainly existed before, only now has the declining influence of social cleavages helped to create a situation in which these tendencies can exercise a decisive influence over the parties. Quite simply, without a politicised societal cleavage to encourage rivalry on this dimension between parties, the parties are allowed to slip into the tendency towards office-seeking behaviour and ideological convergence – as assumed in the Downsian model. It is not surprising therefore that the policies and ideologies of the parties now overlap, leaving an absence of any sharp boundaries. This all adds to the increasingly meaninglessness of party labels and the old left-right dichotomy.