The National Party was previously the largest voluntary organisation in the country, and relative to population, was allegedly once the largest mass membership party in the Western world. [Read more below]
The largest mass party in the world
At the height of its membership in 1960, the National Party claimed to have a quarter of a million members (James, 1987a: p.25; Wood, 2001: pp.246-247; and Upton, 1994a). This impressive figure meant that the party had enrolled close to half of its voters (a membership density of 44%). National has therefore always been substantially larger than the Labour Party. According to Gustafson, at its membership peak, National ‘outnumbered Labour’s financial membership 15 to one. Even if the ratio of active members was somewhat less favourable to National, it still meant that in most electorates National could call on many more workers to canvass, persuade, raise money, and get people on the roll and to the poll than could its opponents’ (Gustafson, 1986: p.122).
As early as 1938 – only two years after the party was created – it claimed 100,000 members – nearly twice that of Labour. By 1946 National boasted 181,000 members, and in 1960 the party peaked at 246,000. According to Tony Wood, ‘The success of National as a mass party had continued through its years in office in the 1950s. Minimal subscriptions (Two shillings and sixpence) and a loose definition of "member" inflated reported numbers’ (Wood, 1989: p.224).
In 1962 Austin Mitchell reported that the party’s membership was still a formidable 230,000 (Mitchell, 1962a: pp.21-22). In the following decade, as National evolved towards an electoral-professional party model, it lost about 100,000 members – yet the party’s claim of 145,000 in 1972 was still a long way ahead of its rival (Gustafson, 1997c: p.139).
National under Muldoon
The health of National was partially revitalised in the mid-1970s, when it reached ‘at least 170 000 members in 1975’ – a figure ‘more than twelve times as great as Labour’s branch membership’ (Webber, 1978: pp.190-191). According to Tony Wood, National membership then reached 200,000 in 1978 (Wood, 1980: pp.131-132). But then in 1980 the Colonels’ Coup, combined with the emergence of the free-market wing of the party, caused a major disturbance within National.
And in the early 1980s, the party’s urban, middle class and liberal base was burnt off by Muldoon’s economic interventionism and social conservatism (Upton, 1992b: p.8). As Muldoon became more extreme in his economic intervention, the party’s reputation as a party of enterprise and freedom suffered, pushing the more innovative and radical members in the younger age group to leave. Thus in 1984 membership dropped significantly to 133,000, and according to James, ‘the organisation was a shell’ (Jesson, 1989c: p.157; James, 1987: p.26).
During the mid-1980s, membership dwindled as the party had trouble trying to find itself politically – coping with the ideological hangover of the Muldoon years and the fact that the Labour Party was stealing National’s free-market position in the party system. At the end of 1985 the party informed the Royal Commission on the Electoral System that it had a membership of close to 100,000 (RCES, 1986: p.214).
Then in the late 1980s there was said to be a resurgence of membership numbers as the party crystallised as some sort of opposition to Rogernomics and the party looked like replacing Labour in government. Also at this time, the National Party attempted to transform its extra-parliamentary organisation into a more modern operation, and this had important implications for membership numbers. This started particularly after the election of John Collinge to the presidency of the party in 1989, after which the party instituted a technological update of its organisational operations (James, 1990a: p.71).
Although National’s membership remained substantially higher than any other party’s, its decline has nevertheless been the most substantial in recent years, especially since 1991. After the election of the Fourth National Government in 1990 and its implementation of unpopular and un-signalled policies that essentially continued the former Labour Government’s unpopular programme, the National Government became ‘the most unpopular government since regular polling began in New Zealand’ (Vowles et al., 1995: p.73). As a result, according to Paul Goldsmith, ‘The party’s elderly left en masse, whole branches "fled in disgust", uprooting the Party’s finances and tearing the heart out of the organisation’ (Goldsmith, 1997: p.168). Gustafson believes that ‘membership collapsed within a year from 100,000 to 40,000 and never recovered’ (Gustafson, 1999).
Similarly, Jenni McManus claimed that membership had dropped from ‘a high of nearly 80,000 to only 33,000’ in 1993 (McManus, 1993: p.5). The then National Party president, John Collinge, disputed this figure, ‘saying membership is currently running at around 60,000’ (McManus, 1993: p.5). However, even Collinge’s figure represented a significant decline. This decline is illustrated by leaked membership figures for the four northernmost electorates in 1991. They showed that in the previous 12 months membership had fallen from 6,741 to 1,850 – a 73% decline (NZ Herald, 9 Nov 1991).
By the late 1990s National had lost the broad base and mass membership that it once legitimately claimed. During Geoff Thompson’s presidency (1994-98), the downward spiral of membership continued, leading Thompson to warn ‘that the party ran the risk of selections being hijacked by narrow interest groups unless the membership was sufficiently broad-based’ (Luke, 2 May 1998: p.19). One leading party official, Lindsay Fergusson, agreed with Thompson, claiming that in 1998 ‘some electorates had too few members to select their own candidates’ (NZ Herald, 23 Jun 1998). He believed that the, ‘Traditional means of recruiting members and supporters are not working for us’ (quoted in the NZ Herald, 23 Jun 1998).
Although no reliable figures exist, it seems that in the mid-1990s total membership was somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000. While National MP Simon Upton often cited membership figures between 40,000 and 50,000, Armstrong reported that ‘Some political opponents claim it has now fallen below 20,000’ (Armstrong, 16 May 1994: p.1). By 2001 party membership had possibly dipped below 20,000, with the party president Michelle Boag revealing that the membership was the lowest it had ever been. Boag also claimed in October 2001 that ‘Membership has gone up by between 15 and 20% in the last couple of months’ (quoted in Black, 2001: p.15).
This history of the National Party’s membership numbers in this blog post is informed by the estimations and statements made on the topic by commentators, politicians and the parties – of which there are 57 recorded figures. These estimations and declarations – which are of varying reliability – can also be seen on a timescale scatter-plot in Figure 6.6. This graph shows that the numbers have declined fairly steady since the 1950s, but especially in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
[This blog post is to be updated – any feedback or further information is very welcome]