A general depoliticisation process is underway in New Zealand society, whereby people are uninterested in taking part in any political process, or even joining non-parliamentary political groups. This has clearly reduced the supply of party membership. [Read more below]
Large election meetings are a thing of the past
The last mass election rally to be held was in the 1987 general election, when 4000 National supporters came to the launch of the party’s campaign. As Vowles et al. pointed out about the 1993 general election, ‘one of the largest audiences either of the major parties could muster in 1993 was estimated to be no more than 500’ (Vowles et al., 1995: p.56).
An anti-political age
In an anti-political age, political parties have a smaller target market for recruitment, as people are less interested in politics. As part of this exhaustion of politics, people feel that all politics and ideologies have been tried and failed, and it has become fashionable to decry not only political parties but politics in general, with criticisms that something is ‘too political’ or ‘too ideological’.
There is also a lack of trust in the value of collective action, hence an unwillingness to join and become active in organisations. In a time of rising levels of political cynicism and feelings of powerlessness the public are unlikely to turn to political parties. Chris Trotter perceptively points out that the fall of Soviet-style communism has also played a strong part in producing today’s apathetic political nature by teaching the public that “there is no alternative”:
Since building a "fairer society" is demonstrably impossible, those who claim to be doing so are either fools or rogues. Clearly, politics is not something any self-respecting person should dirty his/her hands with. Denied the opportunity to do anything more than administer the free-market status quo, politicians and their parties quickly find themselves conforming to the stereotypes of their detractors (Trotter, 1999j: p.13).
Without any substantial political events and movements existing in modern society, the political culture dissipates, with negative consequences for party recruitment. Politicisation usually occurs in relation to the emergence of political issues in society. Hence in the late-1970s and early-1980s a revival in membership occurred at the time of the emergence of several new political issues:
Social Credit – which had membership as high as 22,000 – was mounting a challenge to the two-party system, and the nuclear issue, feminism and the environment regenerated interest in politics. Polarisation of the electorate over the Muldoon Government’s handling of the Springbok Tour further politicised voters (Bain, 1999d: p.8).
These ideas of politicisation, anti-politics and anti-partyism will be explored futher in future blog posts. It will be argued that the voting public are highly sceptical about the integrity and honesty of political parties. Related to this, it seems that where New Zealanders are still interested in joining organised politics they are now more likely to join a non-parliamentary interest group.
In fact, the current fragmented and disorientated politics is very conducive to single-issue politics – which do not fit so well with political parties. In a period when strong partisan loyalties to political parties have ended, a new type of politics has emerged based on a type of ‘shopping for policies’ (Economist, 1993a: p.68).
In this new environment, interest groups often play an expanded role in political debate, often superseding political parties. As Simon Upton has commented, ‘The cudgels can easily be taken up by a few individuals and a media campaign. Some people like the idea of lots of media-driven campaigns unconnected with broad political movements’ (Upton, 1993c: p.8). The nature of a political issue that is unconnected to others means that the campaign for it is often best served by groups that lobby but neither seek office nor the development of a broad political programme.