In recruiting members, parties face competition from alternative social activities. New Zealand political parties once fulfilled a non-political function that is now no longer required – entertainment. The huge growth in alternative social activities have reduced society’s supply of party membership. [Read more below]
Prior to the 1970s, when political parties had mass memberships, they were largely social organisations at a time when New Zealand society had less to offer in terms of entertainment. In this ‘golden-age’ of party membership in New Zealand, there was until 1960 no television and fewer other clubs and social activities to be involved in.
Since the 1960s, however, a myriad of other forms of entertainment and social activities have developed, largely reducing the membership of political parties to only those who are highly interested in politics.
Loosening social and religious values
Loosening social and religious values in Western countries since the 1960s have also made other forms of entertainment more acceptable. Previously, the culture of the times also acted in favour of party membership because ‘social and religious values restricted the kinds of arenas of activity that were regarded as "respectable", [and] parties were usually able to meet the criterion of "acceptability"' (Ware, 1996: pp.75-76).
The rise of leisure organisations
According to Electoral Commission research, seven times as many New Zealanders now belong to ‘leisure organisations’ as they do to political parties (Harris 1998: p.23). Of those surveyed, only 4% claimed to belong to a political party, while 31% belonged to a sports club, 24% belonged to a community group, and 23% belonged to a church (Harris 1998: p.23).
This increased involvement in recreation is partly due to the increased affluence and availability of transport in New Zealand society. Previously, economic scarcity and geographical immobility had restricted leisure activities, making membership of local party branches more desirable. The postwar boom improved the availability of transport for the individual, and this increased the types of recreational activities available to the community (Ware, 1996: pp.75-76).
Changes in lifestyle
Similarly, changes in living styles throughout the Western world also changed the way people interacted and entertained themselves:
Suburbanization, housing redevelopments, deindustrialization, and a variety of other factors led to the replacement of closely knit communities where people interacted extensively with each other by much looser patterns of social interaction. The weakening of these kinds of networks meant that, in general, it became more difficult to recruit members using solidary incentives (Ware, 1996: pp.75-76).
As the demands of daily life have increased in the last couple of decades – particularly due to changing work patterns – many people now have less leisure time, and are therefore less inclined to get involved in political activity. In 1993, even the National Party’s Auckland director, John Tremenwan cited the problem of ‘people having to devote their time to retaining their jobs’ as a factor in the declining political party memberships (Rudman, 1993).