Existing alongside the ‘diminishing supply’ explanations for the decline in party membership is an argument that highlights a ‘diminishing demand’ for membership on the part of party leaders. This is closely related to the shift of parties towards an electoral-professional form of organisation, which involves greater centralisation and professionalisation, all of which increasingly takes place in the parliamentary wing. In this situation, the benefits of a large membership are no longer so great, especially balanced against some of the political and financial costs that also accrue from membership. Party elites therefore have a reduced demand and capacity for involving a large membership, and subsequently expend less effort in recruiting and retaining members. [Read more below]
The logical corollary of this professionalisation is the tendency towards the marginalisation of the membership. Politicians now hire the highly-skilled and expert to help them perform their political functions. These professionals can effectively and efficiently accomplish many of the campaigning and organisational tasks formerly performed by activists. For example:
If politicians want to communicate with the voters, they can appear on television. If they want to raise funds, they can tap friendly foreign businessmen. If they want to sound out popular opinion, they can call in pollsters. If they want to devise a policy, they can turn to the think-tanks. Who needs amateur party activists when you can employ professionals? (Economist, 1993a: p.68).
Such a process is definitely evident in New Zealand, and Jack Vowles has outlined how policy and communications is typically now constructed:
the messages of contemporary New Zealand parties are constructed by professionals, either employed by the party nationally or contracted to provide such advice at that level, and are designed for communication through the mass media, and notably television. Public polling and focus group research are used to test party performance, policies and party rhetoric. Ordinary members and activists play little or no role in this work (Vowles, 2002b: p.425).
National Party example
Simon Upton, a former National MP, has also shown how members are clearly now less relevant or central to the operations of the parties. He says that the party membership of National once played a central role in policy formulation:
Policy was driven by remits that originated at small branch meetings, progressed on to the electorate, then the division and finally the national conference. Cabinet ministers as late as the sixties were directly influenced by remit debates. The influence of the party organisation derived not just from the size of its membership but its quality (Upton, 1992b: p.8).
Upton contrasts this to the present day creation of party policy in which rank-and-file party members play no effective role: ‘it bears almost no relationship to the way politics are now conducted. Policies are driven by media exposure (television in particular) and opinion polling; their detailed execution is driven by the bureaucracy and independent consultants’ (ibid: p.8).
Act Party example
Likewise, in examining the Act party’s organisational structure, Patrick Hine noted that ‘the formal opportunities for the wider party membership to exercise some influence… are limited in the extreme’ and that ‘the opinion of the party member is publicly accorded no more significance than that of any member of the public’ (Hine, 1995: p.52).
Labour Party example
When Ruth Dyson was the president of the Labour Party, she also attributed the lack of influence that party members have for the fall in membership numbers in her party:
The policy role of the Party, and our organisational strength are very closely linked. People join the Labour Party because of their commitment to policies which they want to see implemented. Because the Party was left out of the policy making process more and more, our ability to keep and attract members became weaker (Dyson, 1991).
Similarly, according to a National Party member writing on Michelle Boag’s website, ‘Committees and conferences are dominated by the ‘elite’ of lawyers, accountants etcetera, and we totally ignore a huge chunk of our support base and their opinions are not valued’ (quoted in Black, 2001: p.15).
Also, by essentially incorporating the roles and staff of the extra-parliamentary head offices into the parliamentary wings, party leaders have effectively marginalised party members because it was through the extra-parliamentary structure that they participated. According to Mair, ‘On the face of it, a strengthening of the position and of the resources of the party in public office, and the marginalization of, or greater autonomy afforded to, the party in central office, would appear to offer little scope for an enhancement of the position of the party on the ground. In this sense, we might anticipate that party members would themselves be marginalized, being deemed unnecessary, or even ignored’ (Mair, 1994: p.13).
Therefore, while members of New Zealand parties traditionally expected that in exchange for their contributions as members they would have at least some control over the goals and activities of the party, this system of exchange has broken down.
Such treatment of party activists has proved to be unsustainable, with many obviously ceasing involvement in parties due to the futility of the role. Levine commented on this trend in 1979:
In practice, each party has developed an elite – a small and coherent group – which undertakes on a regular basis the management of party affairs. Attempts to acquire a large party membership appear to be efforts aimed at identifying voters, securing funds, and obtaining campaign workers. Neither party seems prepared genuinely to involve the electorate in their deliberations, and no effort is made to recruit members into decision-making roles (Levine, 1979: p.67).
This is clearly in line with the electoral-professional model, and thus the organisation of New Zealand political parties has changed to the extent that nearly all energy and resources are now put to work in the interests of electoral performance. Party leaders are therefore less likely to encourage the traditional type of representative party structures that ‘function as participatory, representative and communicative channels in the political system’ (Pierre et al., 2000: p.3).
Likewise, advances in technology means that computerised mailing lists, automated telephone messages and commercial mail drops have replaced the army of volunteers parties once needed. Instead of sending party activists door-to-door canvassing, professionalised parties are more likely to use paid canvassers, consultants, PR specialists and pollsters to carry out telemarketing campaigns that yield much more effective results. As well as access to mass media, technological progress has also provided the parties with email facilities and websites (See: Vowles et al., 1995: p.56).
The increased emphasis placed on these new forms of communication and political manipulation means that political parties correspondingly put less emphasis and importance on the ‘old-style’ contributions and value of members and activists, and more on trying to buy the latest available gimmick (Miller, 2001: pp.233-234).