There is now a certain social stigma attached to the membership of a political party. Just as the act of seeking public office or being a politician has lost respectability, so too has the act of being part of an organisation that aids politicians and their electioneering. Added to this, the New Zealand parties – Labour and National especially – have discredited themselves in government, while in general parties and governments have shown themselves to be rather ineffective within today’s globalised capitalism. [Read more below]
That the whole notion of party politics is held in disdain by most of the public means that the social status of belonging to a party has been greatly reduced. In recent years New Zealanders have indicated a very low opinion of political parties. For example, a 1998 Massey University’s survey found that 92% of adults had either ‘very little’ or no confidence in New Zealand parties (Perry and Webster, 1999: p.15).
Disillusionment with politics and parties obviously also affects the recruitment of members. A central argument throughout the blog posts of this thesis is that political parties have become more remote as the parties have few roots or connections with civil society. Instead of being the expression of the interests of certain social groups, the parties are, more than ever before, the representation of the politicians alone.
The unpopularity of the Labour and National parties
There is numerious literature that shows how unpopular the Labour and National parties became after three finance ministers (Muldoon, Douglas and Richardson) pushed their governments in radical directions, which led to many members exiting their parties in protest. For example, Labour lost the bulk of its membership during the second half of the 1980s when the Fourth Labour Government rejected its former working class orientation and implemented its pro-business economic restructuring.
Likewise, many of the National Party’s moderate and older-age members deserted the party in droves following Ruth Richardson’s 1991 ‘Mother of All Budgets’, benefit cuts and the government’s failure to fulfil election promises such as removing the surtax on superannuation (Gustafson, 1999; Goldsmith, 1997: p.168).
Parties now have less power
New Zealand political parties have lost much of their scope to make changes in society. This is partly because of the influence of globalisation and partly because the parties operate in an institution with increasingly less power – Parliament. New Zealand governments over the last two decades have deregulated many areas of society, and therefore taken away the power of parliaments and governments to affect change.
According to Simon Upton:
the deregulation of the economy and the liberalisation of social constraints means that people need the services of political parties much less. Put simply, politicians can peddle much less influence in a world without import licensing, liquor licensing or an Albanian-style telephone system (Upton, 1993c: p.8).
It seems likely that the parties are therefore, less attractive organisations to join due to the fact that they now have less power.