Parties in New Zealand have clearly demonstrated that they can exist more than adequately without mass memberships, but the existence of the low numbers still invites the question of how well the parties function with this new arrangement. For instance, the decline of the membership numbers of New Zealand’s political parties has some important consequences for party ideology. [Read more below]
As Len Bayliss has pointed out, the lack of party members in New Zealand means that ‘the policies of the major political parties lack the authority which is conferred through widespread debate by the party membership in both public and private’ (Bayliss, 1994: pp.70-71).
More importantly, the lower membership numbers changes the intra-party power structures, conceivably allowing leaders to pursue more office-seeking strategies (or, in times of state difficulty, managerial-reforming strategies). For example, it means that the party elite have increased autonomy in their formulation of policy:
Many MPs are now professional career politicians, a fair number of whom would be equally at home in another party. Such politicians, lacking strong personal convictions, keep their eyes glued on the polls to ensure that their publicly expressed views stay in line with popular opinion…. The absence of mass membership is seen as a blessing since it gives the professionals a much freer hand (Bayliss, 1994: pp.70-71).
Upton illustrates this same argument with the example of the reforming Fourth Labour Government:
That Labour MPs and ministers were let loose to play in the Treasury’s laboratory is, in no small part, a consequence of declining membership. If there were no party members turning up to electorate committee meetings, it’s scarcely surprising that MPs felt unconstrained by the grassroots. The lack of a vibrant party organisation meant that some Labour MPs were meeting with just four or five people back home (Upton, 1994a).
The increased propensity for office-seeking behaviour in low-membership parties is because the balance of power is tilted more towards the leadership who are often – but certainly not always – more pragmatic and moderate than the rank-and-file members or activists. There is a strong pattern throughout the Western world in which party activists are more ideologically polarised than those that merely vote for the party. Such activists tend to push political parties to take more radical policy stances, and to be more principled and firm in the pursuit of such stances.
Previously New Zealand political parties – because they were typically labour-intensive – had to ‘establish an exchange relationship with potential activists by offering them policy promises’ (Maor, 1997: p.97). The increasing reliance on professional labour therefore relieves political parties of the need for such an exchange, thus making them more pragmatic. Regardless of the exact ideological result, it is clear that the party elite have greater political manoeuvrability, being able to bring about ideological reorientation because the control and influence of members are not very strong (Tan, 2000: p.12). This means that party leaders are even less restrained in their policy options than before.