Instead of modelling itself on a mass-membership party, Act has always had as its model the electoral-professionalised design of a cadre-type party. [Read more below]
In 1999 the Act party claimed to have ‘probably the second highest political membership of any party in New Zealand’ (Tate, 1999: p.6). This seems very unlikely, but the size of Act New Zealand’s membership is very hard to ascertain, as there are very few reports about it. Soon after its founding in 1994 – and before officially becoming a political party – Act claimed a paid-up membership of 1000, and by 1995 the party was boasting 3000 members (Scherer, 1994a; Act, 1995). This claim seems questionable. A leaked 1995 internal membership list for the whole of Wellington showed that there were only 216 Act members in that region, making a national figure of 3000 appear to be erroneous or exaggerated (Parkin, 1995). In 1996 both Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide cited a membership figure of 7000 (Prebble, 1996; Kirk, 1996: p.23).
Act’s leadership is also prone to blurring the categories of party members and party supporters. After the 1996 general election, Prebble proclaimed that ‘Only Act campaigned in the old-fashioned way, relying on donations from its 14,000 supporters’ (quoted in NZPA, 1997a), and in October 1999 Prebble claimed that Act had 14,000 members (Bain, 1999d: p.8). It seems that the 14,000 figure claimed by Act is made up of those who asked to be members, supporters or are just on the party’s mailing list – which is hardly likely to give Act the second highest political membership of any party in New Zealand, as they claimed. In 2001 Act also claimed a total membership to 5000 after purportedly gaining 800 new members (Langdon, 2001b: p.2).
In 2001 Act were still professing their belief that they were second to National in terms of membership numbers, after claiming that Labour’s numbers had fallen to only 3000 (Prebble, 2001). Prebble also claimed that Act had ‘easily the largest active membership of any political party’ after their survey of party members resulted in over 1800 of them replying (ibid). Clearly the party’s definition of activism was a very limited one. In the same year, 2,027 postal votes were cast in Act’s high-profile party president contest. These two response levels (1800 and 2027) suggested that the party’s membership probably was something more like 3000 than 5000.
Instead of modelling itself on a mass-membership party, Act has always had as its model the electoral-professionalised design of a cadre-type party. For example, the party always attempted to make full use of computer technology in a way that meant it would not need a large membership base. As Brian Arps, Act’s organisational workshop coordinator in 1994, said of the party’s elaborate communications system, ‘the system would remove the need for mailing, envelop-stuffing and the large number of meetings’ (Small, 1994b: p.24).
In his study of Act, Patrick Hine discovered that ‘the formal opportunities for the wider party membership to exercise some influence over… policy teams and the Board that appoints and oversees them are limited in the extreme’ (Hine, 1995: p.51). Also, according to Act’s constitution, it is the party’s Board of Trustees, not the membership at large, which selects the leader and deputy leader of the party (Small, 1994b: p.24).
This limited meaningfulness afforded to membership was related to the party founders’ belief that politicians should not be hamstrung by their extra-parliamentary party organisations. Therefore, ‘In Act, the opinion of the party member is publicly accorded no more significance than that of any member of the public’ (Hine, 1995: p.52). The reasons for joining a party with such a low regard and return for its membership are obviously not great.
This history of Act New Zealand’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 15 recorded figures. These estimations and declarations – which are of varying reliability – can also be seen on a timescale scatter-plot in Figure 6.7. Although the super-imposed trend line suggests ongoing growth in Act membership numbers, the estimates of 14,000 are very unreliable, if these were removed then the trend would be somewhat less upward.
[This blog post is to be updated – any feedback or further information is very welcome]