There are fears that a declining membership base means that political parties are likely to become increasingly unrepresentative of New Zealand society. It can be argued that as membership declines, candidate selection is increasingly left in the hands of an unrepresentative slice of New Zealanders – or the ‘political class’. [Read more below]
This point is of increased importance under MMP, due to the fact that the party organisations now have increased influence. Simon Upton has argued exactly this (in an article entitled ‘How Tiny, Self-Serving Cliques Could be All-Important in Politics’). Under MMP, he wrote, ‘an ever-decreasing number of New Zealanders will have an input into who stands for Parliament. The power to nominate the country’s leaders lies in the hands of a tiny – and increasingly unrepresentative – group’ (Upton, 1995a: p.11).
Undoubtedly, the lack of membership numbers in the parties increases the possibility that the parties are vulnerable to small cliques of politicians that are not held accountable to a substantial party membership. Upton says that, from his own experience, the situation became so bad that by the mid-1990s, branch ‘meetings, rarely attended by more than 30 or so people, are, believe it or not, the nerve centre of political activism in New Zealand politics’ (Upton, 1995a: p.11).
As previous blog posts on party membership have shown, the ratio of members to voters is now extremely low, and in a party like Labour, less than one in fifty of its voters belong to the party.
The small size of the party memberships is also contributing to the fact that all the parties have trouble recruiting quality election candidates. In 1999, Helen Clark admitted, ‘We do have trouble attracting good candidates….. It has been an issue. We haven’t had a good overall intake since 1984’ (quoted in McLoughlin, April 1999: p.74).
Michael Laws, too, has been very candid about the trouble he had finding quality candidates for New Zealand First in the 1996 general election: ‘the New Zealand First party faced the unusual quandary of having too many prospective MPs and not enough quality candidates…. I bemoaned this state of affairs to a senior National Party official with a hands-on role for that party’s election campaign. The lament was returned – with very few exceptions the quality of that party’s candidates was also being undermined by the availability of suitable personnel’ (Laws, 9 March 1999: p.4).
Laws’ tale about the National Party is confirmed by its then president, John Slater, who said: ‘It is getting harder to attract top-quality professional and business people’ (quoted in McLoughlin, 1999: p.75). He also confirmed that National now takes a more pro-active approach to candidate selection: ‘We put our thinking caps on and consider who might make a good MP. But a lot of the people we approach turn it down’ (ibid). National MP Bill English has also argued that ‘falling party membership is a concern because it means a diminishing pool of talent from which tomorrow’s politicians are drawn’ (Laugesen, 1999f: p.A3).
Act has grappled with the problem of finding quality candidates from within its small membership by searching outside the party. Not only do they advertise in the daily newspapers for potential candidates, but also commission a personal recruitment agency for the task (Simpson, 1998: p.42).
The fact that political parties have such small memberships means that state regulation of the party system (typified by the EFA) becomes seen as increasingly necessary. If New Zealand’s political parties possessed large and dynamic mass memberships they would be less likely to require legislation to make them run democratically nor would they necessarily need legislation such as the Electoral Integrity Act to control their parliamentarians. Because none of the New Zealand political parties have such a membership, they lack an in-built check on the ambitions of parliamentarians (Trotter, 2001c: p.14).