The New Zealand Labour Party has gone from apparently having one of the largest per capita memberships of any Labour Party in the Western world, to now possibly one of the smallest whilst in government. The story of the party’s membership is that of incredible decline. [Read more below]
Two types of members
Traditionally the Labour Party has had two types of members: direct branch members and indirect members in unions affiliated to the party. Typical of social democratic parties generally, Labour was established early in the twentieth century as the political wing of the industrial labour movement, and was therefore actually set up and financed by the trade unions – hence their privileged role in the party over the following decades. The general branch membership component of the party was an afterthought, only coming into existence so that the party could make use of its non-union supporters. Even by the time the party took power in 1935, Labour only had 8300 branch members compared to an industrial membership of 23,814 (Gustafson, 1992b: pp.274, 275). More recently, the affiliate union membership has ceased to have any real relevance in the party, and the only meaningful membership figure is that of direct members.
A story of decline
By the end of its first term in government (1935-38), Labour Party membership had surged to 51,174 (Gustafson, 1976a: p.10). However, the story of the party’s membership since then is that of a membership in decline. According to Barry Gustafson, ‘despite a temporary resurgence in the mid-1950s, Labour’s grass-roots membership became very sparse and withered, dropping to a mere 13,476 in 1969 (Gustafson, 1992b: p.275). Bruce Jesson has pointed out that ‘Even in Auckland, the party’s largest and most important region, there were only 2,695 members in 1970, with probably only a few hundred activists and a handful of stalwarts running most electorate organisations’ (Jesson, 1989a: p.25). A 1971 membership of about 120 in the Wellington Central electorate also suggested a collapse in Labour Party affairs (Shand, 1978: p.174).
In fact, membership as a ratio of the electorate (M/E) declined much more drastically. According to Douglas Webber, it fell by 85 percent between 1940 and 1969 (Webber, 1978: p.190). Likewise, Gustafson has used membership as a ratio of Labour’s voters (M/V) and calculated that during the period 1938 to 1969 membership fell from almost one in 13 Labour voters to less than one in fifty (Gustafson, 1976b: p.10).
During the first half of the 1970s, the party’s membership remained at about 14,000, and then fell even further after the Third Labour Government’s defeat in 1975. Comparing the dismal state of Labour’s membership to that of National’s then purported 200,000 members, Alexander Davidson argued that rather than being classified as a mass party, the Labour Party had become ‘a cadre party in its organisation, membership and elite recruitment’ (Davidson, 1989: p.351). Webber also commented that branch membership was so low ‘that the party’s ability to organise its potential supporters for electoral purposes – the most important activity of a pragmatic party – was open to considerable doubt’ (Webber, 1978: p.190).
By this time the working class component of the party had largely fallen out of the membership, as evidenced by the decline in the traditionally large working class branches, while the branches in the more marginal (and hence middle class) electorates fared better (Webber, 1978: p.187). Not only was the Labour Party now largely without a working class branch membership, but the trade unions too, according to Webber, had either ‘relinquished or been dispossessed’ of their power within the party (Webber, 1978: p.191).
In the mid-to-late 1970s, under the presidency of Arthur Faulkner and then Jim Anderton, Labour embarked on a modernisation drive to rejuvenate the party organisation. According to the membership figures of Webber and Colin James, the branch numbers quickly rose to 55,000 in 1976 and then about 80,000 in the early 1980s (Webber, 1978: p.191; James, 1987a: p.32). Stephen Levine says, ‘The 1976-8 membership drive appears to have returned the party to its late 1930s peak of around 50,000’ (Levine, 1979: p.72). James has stated that Anderton was able to increase the membership to around 80,000 in the early 1980s, and Anderton himself claims that membership reached the 100,000 mark in 1981 (James, 1987a: p.32; McLennan and Rentoul, 1989). According to Bain, the numbers reached 49,837 in 1981, and Grafton has produced a figure of 65,000 that he claims was the party’s peak in 1983 (Bain, 7 Oct 1999: p.8; Grafton, 1990: p.16).
By the time of the 1984 general election, the Labour Party was apparently claiming to have 100,000 members (Walker, 1989: p.217), although according to Jesson this figure was the amount of people on the party’s mailing list rather than actual paid-up members (Jesson, 1989a: p.46). James has cited the 1984 membership as being ‘around 50,000’ (James, 1990a: p.66), while Jane Kelsey has produced a figure of 45,000 (Kelsey, 1995: p.36). Anderton later claimed that membership at that point had actually fallen to 40,000 – a figure also backed up by other Labour Party office holders (McLennan and Rentoul, 1989).
In 1986 the party claimed to the Royal Commission on the Electoral System (RCES) that they had about 50,000 direct members (RCES, 1986: p.212). Following their re-election in 1987 Labour’s membership declined markedly, according to Gustafson, ‘to 27,000 in 1987 and to only 11,000 by May 1988’ (Gustafson, 1992: pp.275-276). This is also confirmed by party insider Simon Walker, who disclosed that in 1989 ‘unofficial membership estimates stood at around 10,000 to 15,000’ (Walker, 1989: p.217). By 1990 ‘the most generous count’, James reported, would put the membership at ‘around 20,000’, but James believed the party had become ‘a cadre party of a few committed people’ (James, 1990: p.66). The large discrepancies between the membership figures for Labour in the 1980s illustrate the difficulties in ascertaining reliable membership numbers.
The political programme and behaviour of the Fourth Labour Government clearly offended many traditional Labour Party members. By 1990 official Labour Party records show the membership of the party to have dropped to only 6987 (Sheppard, 1999: p.215). Labour was once again an elite cadre party.
Following the party’s subsequent defeat, and throughout the early 1990s, membership remained at its previous low levels. James, for instance, cited a membership figure of 13,000 in 1991 (James, 1991c: p.17). Then membership hit its lowest point in 1994 following the replacement of Mike Moore as party leader by Helen Clark, when many of Moore’s supporters left the party in the aftermath of the bitter struggle (Allen, 1999). Membership figures subsequently hovered around the 5000 mark.
In fact during April 1994, disaffected Labour MP and caucus secretary Jack Elder leaked internal party information which showed that membership had declined from 5600 to 3600 (Underhill, 1994a: p.9). As a result, Elder was sacked from his position as caucus secretary, but the party president, Maryan Street, did not attempt to deny Elder’s figures, instead pointing out that the leaked figures ‘were distorted because membership renewals had gone out late’ (Underhill, 1994a: p.9). Similarly, the party’s financial report for 1994 shows that $73,090 was received in membership subscriptions that year, suggesting that if all members paid the $11 fee, then the party only had about 6644 members (Edwards, 1994).
In November 1997 it was reported that the Labour Party had recorded a rise in its membership from 5,000 to 6,500 (Edwards 1997c: p.7; Herbert, 1997). According to Nick Venter, party ‘president Michael Hirschfeld told the [Labour] conference membership was up 31 percent on last year’ (Venter, 24 Nov 1997: p.2). It was also reported that in 1997 Labour had ‘raised its Maori membership by more than 50 per cent’ (Herbert, 1997). After a decade of falling numbers Labour had managed to reverse the decline, but despite the party’s success in the polls a significant-sized membership eluded the party. Labour’s general secretary at the time, Rob Allen, claimed that Labour Party membership had fallen significantly between 1987 and 1996 but had since bottomed out, and the party was experiencing ‘a small growth incline’ (Allen, 1999). He claimed that Labour had a membership exceeding 20,000, and that therefore the party had a membership ‘probably at least as big if not bigger’ than the National’s (Allen, 1999).
Despite the many campaigns to revitalise membership numbers, Labour’s party organisation obtained few new members and has essentially remained a cadre organisation. In 2002 the reported figure was a membership of 14,000 (Tunnah, 2002).
Permanent low membership
The Labour Party has gone from apparently having one of the largest per capita memberships of any Labour Party in the Western world, to now possibly one of the smallest whilst in government. Making the assumption that Labour now has about 10,000 members in 2008 means that in relation to its 935,319 voters Labour now has a very low party membership density (M/V) of only 1.06%.
This history of the Labour Party’s membership numbers in this blog post is made up from the estimations and statements made on the topic by commentators, politicians and the parties – of which there are 109 recorded figures. These estimations and declarations – which are of varying reliability – can also be seen on a timescale scatter-plot in Figure 6.4. This graph visually tells the story of Labour’s membership rise from its low numbers in 1917, rising dramatically in the 1930s, after which it slowly and steadily declined through to the late 1970s. It then rose again dramatically to a high point in the early 1980s that the commentators have many different figures for. After this it fell steadily to very low numbers in the 1990s. The trend line imposed on the graph illustrates that the general movement of numbers over time has been sloping moderately downwards.
There are 34 estimations and statements for the affiliate membership numbers of the Labour Party. These can also be seen on a timescale scatter-plot in Figure 6.5. This graph shows that like the direct/branch party membership, the general movement of affiliate numbers over time has been sloping moderately downwards, albeit it with substantial rises in the 1930s and 1980s.
[This blog post is to be updated – any feedback or further information is very welcome]