Party membership is made even more meaningless by the lack of internal democracy in the New Zealand parties. Despite supposedly democratic structures, it is the parliamentary elite of the parties that make the most important decisions. [Read more below]
Henderson and Bellamy point out the disconnect between democratic theory and practice in the New Zealand parties:
while party members in theory have the opportunity to be actively involved in formulating party policy and candidate selection, in practice most key decisions rest with the party hierarchies. Party conferences are useful for floating policy ideas and parties maintain policy committees, but the decisions on policy tend to rest with the party leaders and their parliamentary caucus (2002: p.70).
The fact that the parliamentary leadership ignores even conference remits means that there are few membership incentives for those who might be mobilised by ideological incentives. As Matt McCarten has argued, ‘Party conferences in most parties have no power over MPs any more, so why would you waste your time’ (quoted in Laugesen, 1999f: p.A3). The most overt examples of this occurred in the mid-1980s when Labour leaders made it obvious that they would not action any proposals passed by their conferences that they disagreed with.
For instance, government minister Richard Prebble’s stated that the Labour Party was ‘totally irrelevant to the election undertakings we gave to the New Zealand public’ (quoted in Sheppard, 1999: p.8). The Labour Party extra-parliamentary organisation fought a long and hard battle to be included in decisions about the policy direction of their Government. Ultimately they had little influence, although in some non-economic policy areas the Cabinet were prepared to allow them some say.
The lack of internal democratic practice extends to the selection of parliamentary candidates. While traditional methods continue to exist in terms of selecting electorate candidates, in most political parties the leaderships have chosen to retain the right to choose list MPs (McLeay, 2000). In the formation of the party lists, most parties have established ‘moderating committees’ of party elites that make the final decisions about list rankings (Miller, 2000: pp.18-19; Miller, 2001: p.235).
The partial democratisation con
In apparent contradiction to these trends, some New Zealand political parties have partially democratised themselves by making the possession of membership more empowering. Examples include carrying out postal ballots of party members for the selection of party lists candidates. The Greens and Act ask all their members to rank the list of candidates in their preferred order. The members’ preferences are then considered by the moderating committees who have the ability to make small changes to the list (See: Small, 1994b: p.24, Reid, 2001: p.265). For example, in 1996 the Act membership voted Donna Awatere Huata into number 37 on the party list, but the Act board of trustees shifted her to the winnable position of number four.
While this relatively democratic list construction process appears to contradict the move towards the electoral-professional model of party organisation, closer examination of such party changes suggests that they are, in fact, very compatible.
Mair argues that the crucial point is that democratisation is being extended to the members as individuals rather than to actvists. He says that ‘it is not the party congress or the middle-level elite, or the activists who are being empowered, but rather the "ordinary" members, who are at once more docile and more likely to endorse the policies (and candidates) proposed by the party leadership and by the party in public office’ (Mair, 1997: p.149). Meanwhile ‘the activist layer inside the party, the traditionally more troublesome layer, becomes marginalized’ (Mair, 1997: p.149).
[This blog post is to be updated – any feedback or further information is very welcome]